Fossil fungi from over 400m years ago have altered our understanding of early life on land and climate change over deep time
Much of the weirdness depicted in the TV show Stranger Things is distinctly fungal. The massive organic underground network, the floating spores, and even the rotting pumpkin fields all capture the “otherness” of fungi: neither plants nor animals, often bizarre-looking, and associated with decay. As weird as they may seem to us, fungi are integral to the story of the evolution of our landscapes and climate.
Molecular studies show us that animals and fungi share a more recent common ancestor than either group does with plants, and that these groups had all diverged over a billion years ago. A sparse fossil record for fungi is not entirely surprising, given the low preservation potential of soft, microscopic threads, but we still have tantalising glimpses of their history. Recent work on the Rhynie Chert, a deposit formed in hydrothermal wetlands 407m years ago, preserving an early land ecosystem in exquisite detail, has helped to reveal the hidden history of fungi. All modern groups of fungi are abundant in Rhynie chert samples apart from the basidiomycota, the group which includes those most familiar of fungi: mushrooms. New findings have been published in a special volume of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.