Field report: Identifying soil fungi across Kazakhstan’s grasslands, mountains and deserts

A glance across Kazakhstan’s expansive landscapes gives rise to an eerie emptiness. But take a closer look, and you may spot a small mammal or two, scarpering into burrows, hiding from birds of prey. Listen carefully, and you’ll begin to hear the song of larks, Fieldfares, possibly a Long-eared Owl. After several attentive weeks, you’ll have encountered a cornucopia of fauna, which has been evolving over millennia to form the delicate web of life found here today.

Underpinning Kazakhstan’s ecosystems is a tapestry of vegetation, from the sweeping feathergrass in the fertile north, to the resilient shrubs and coniferous forests in the southern deserts and mountains. Belowground, an ancient network of thread-like microscopic mycorrhizal fungi feeds nutrients to roots in exchange for chemical energy produced by plants through photosynthesis.

A field of Feathergrass. © Genevieve Stephens/RSPB

Understanding more about the fungal world

In June, I joined a field expedition alongside scientists from SPUN, a scientific research organization founded to map mycorrhizal fungal communities and advocate for their protection, to collect soil samples across Kazakhstan. The samples have been sent to a laboratory, where geneticists are sequencing the DNA of any mycorrhizae (symbiotic fungi) present in the soil. An analysis of the results will serve two key objectives. Firstly, it will help the RSPB and our in-country partner, the Association for the Conservation of the Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK), to understand the role of soil biota in maintaining the integrity of Kazakhstan’s biodiversity, which is increasingly at risk of drought and desertification.

Secondly, it will enhance SPUN’s understanding of the mycorrhizal diversity of Kazakhstan, which they’ve identified as a potential global hotspot, as part of their broader ambition to map global fungi, identify hotspots, and advocate for their protection.

Mountains to desertsWe begin our journey in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s former capital, nestled in the foothills of the Tian Shan mountains. Almaty’s origins can be traced back to the medieval settlement of Almatau, which translates as ‘Apple Mountain’, the birthplace of all the world’s apples.

From Almaty, we drive 260 km east to the Aktau Mountains in the Altyn Emel nature reserve, where we begin a month of soil sampling. The Aktau Mountains form the bottom of a dried up, ancient ocean which harbours the fossilised remains of flora from the Miocene epoch, such as poplar, willow and elm, as well as prehistoric animals, including giant rhinos and turtles.

SPUN colleagues below the Aktau Mountains. © Genevieve Stephens/RSPB

Today, the nature reserve is home to endangered birds and mammals, such as the Black Stork, Imperial Eagle, and Kulan (wild ass). While this desert landscape may not reveal an abundance of fungi, our results will enhance the accuracy of SPUN’s predictive maps.

We take turns collecting samples, noting the number of vegetation species and livestock faeces at each location to inform a broader understanding of the sites’ vegetation community and grazing intensity. As we complete our day’s work, the sun dips below the horizon, casting its glow over the Aktau Mountains and transforming their layers of chalk, clay and sandstone into hues of red.

Collecting a soil sample, using a cylinder, within the Altyn Emel reserve. © Genevieve Stephens/RSPB

The following day we drive north to sample soil from the montane forests of the Tian Shan’s lower slopes, dominated by Asian Spruce, Eurasian Aspen, and Tianshan Birch. Their shaded understorey supports biodiverse carpets of moss, as well as several species of wild flora, including tulips and orchids. We collect our samples, before heading to our next site, an open meadow overlooking the glacial Kolsai lakes.

In the forested slopes of the Tian Shan. © Genevieve Stephens/RSPB

Sampling above the Kolsai Lakes

In the evening, we return to our accommodation; a quintessentially Kazakh homestay, where we’re greeted with hot tea and freshly cooked Baursak (fluffy balls of fried dough).

The next leg of our transect takes us from the mountains to the desert region of the Charyn Canyon. The canyon is a 12-million-year-old riverbed which shelters one of the world’s largest populations of Sogdian Ash trees, as well as dozens of rare animal species including the Siberian Ibex and Goitered Gazelle.

After collecting our soil samples, we return to Almaty, from where we’ve booked a 15-hour overnight train journey to Astana, Kazakhstan’s modern capital.

The Charyn Canyon, a 12-million-year old river bed. © Genevieve Stephens/RSPB

Grasslands to semi-desertsIn Astana, we spend several days planning our next, 3-day transect with Alyona Koshkina, a lead scientist at ACBK. She shares detailed satellite imagery of our route, as well as information about the distribution of small mammals (her specialism), and regional land-use change. During Soviet times, Astana was Kazakhstan’s administrative centre of Khruschev’s 1950s Virgin Lands Campaign, the largest land-use change programme in recent history, which saw millions of hectares of pristine steppe across northern Kazakhstan and southern Russia brought under cultivation to increase the region’s agricultural production. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, much of this land was abandoned, with the plant-fungi interdependencies predicted to have begun their long recovery.

Once prepared, we set off from Astana towards Kostanay to sample a stretch of land crossing a north-south gradient that transitions from a steppe grassland to semi-desert terrain. En route, we stop to collect samples from areas of vegetation representative of their wider region. After a long day of sampling in 40 degrees heat, we find a secluded spot to set up camp and share a meal of instant noodles.

Field team setting up camp. © Genevieve Stephens/RSPB

The following day, we pack up camp and continue south. Desert-prone shrubs replace the grasses found further north, the musky smell of herbaceous artemisia filling the air. We complete our day’s sampling points and set up camp beside a meandering river.

We awake early to a blazing sun, prepare our morning coffee and head off for the final leg of our transect. Throughout the day, we contend with tormenting mosquitoes and unforgiving heat, yet find some comfort knowing our efforts will contribute to a greater understanding of the precious, living world beneath our feet.

Camp, central Kazakhstan © Evgeniy Leshenko.

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