Conservation research for Tea-tree Fingers

Tea-tree Fingers (Hypocreopsis amplectens) is an enigmatic fungus that is among the most threatened fungi in Australia. It is known from only four sites in Victoria but, intriguingly, it has also been reported from two sites in New Zealand and there is photographic evidence for an occurrence in the New England region of New South Wales. It has been a target species for the fungi mapping project ‘Fungimap’ for several decades and is one of the least reported species of all the targets.

Due to its rarity and threats to its habitat, Tea-tree Fingers has been assessed as Critically Endangered and is included on the global IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. It is also formally listed under the Victorian Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act. Victoria is the stronghold of the species, with four extant populations in the Yarra Valley and West Gippsland, where land clearing has considerably reduced suitable habitat for the fungus. There is also one site on the Mornington Peninsula at which the species is considered extinct. Current sites are in the Nyora-Grantville area and near Launching Place. One of the sites was discovered in 2020 during field work for the current project.

Tea-tree Fingers appears to be an obligate mycoparasite – forming finger-like, clasping sporing bodies on the flat sporing bodies of another fungus in the Hymenochaete family. The host fungus seems to be a wood-rotter, growing on usually dead branches of shrubs and small trees such as Leptospermum (Teatree), Melaleuca (Paperbark) and Kunzea (Burgan). The woody branches on which it grows can be semi-vertical or slanted, caught by the canopy, rather than lying directly on the ground.

Known sites for Tea-tree Fingers in Victoria are long-unburnt. It is not known how this species colonises after fire, which is a natural part of its ecosystems. With a low number of individuals, less than 50, occurring in habitats that are fire prone, it is essential to increase understanding of the life cycle, biology and habitat preference of H. amplectens to ensure long term survival of the species.

Since the discovery of Tea-tree Fingers in the mid 1990s, Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria mycologists and ecologists have worked closely with field naturalists and land managers to advance knowledge of this fascinating fungus. Fungimap has developed a guide to survey and monitoring for the fungus and instigated photo-monitoring at known sites.

The ‘Conservation research for Tea-tree Fingers’ project aims to build on existing knowledge and resources to produce research on the biology of H. amplectens that informs management of the species. We will identify the host fungus of tea-tree fingers, investigate genetic variation within and among populations, characterise its microhabitat and follow the development of the fungus and its host. In addition, we aim to secure pure cultures of the fungus and its host to facilitate experiments on ex situ conservation and translocation, should these approaches become necessary.

Project Team

  • Michael Amor (Royal Botanic Gardens, Victoria)  
  • Sapphire McMullan-Fisher (Royal Botanic Gardens, Victoria) 
  • Tom May (Royal Botanic Gardens, Victoria) 
  • Alastair Robinson (Royal Botanic Gardens, Victoria) 

Support

Generous financial support has been provided by the Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning. 

Publications

Buchanan, P. & May, T. (2019). Hypocreopsis amplectens . The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2019: e.T80188449A80188453.

Fungimap (2018) How to Identify and Record Information to Help Save Tea-tree Fingers. Version 3. Fungimap.

Johnston, P.R., May, T.W., Park, D. & Horak, E. (2007). Hypocreopsis amplectens sp. nov., a rare fungus from New Zealand and Australia. New Zealand Journal of Botany 45, 715–719.  

May, T.W. (1994). Conservation reserve for HypocreopsisAustralian Mycological Newsletter 12, 2.  

May, T. (2008). A name and a novel distribution for Hypocreopsis sp. 'Nyora'. Fungimap Newsletter 34, 9. 

May, T. (2011). Tea-tree fingers—Hypocreopsis amplectens in Tasmania? The Natural News 47, 10–11.  

May, T.W. & Eichler, J. (1993). A Hypocreopsis (Fungi) from Nyora, Victoria. Victorian Naturalist 110, 76–77. 

May, T.W. & McMullan-Fisher, S.J.M. (2017). Holding on to Tea-tree fingers: a critically endangered fungus. Australasian Plant Conservation 25(3), 8–10