Dr Tom May, Principal Research Scientist (Mycology) at Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, was awarded the 2023 Nancy T. Burbidge Medal, the highest award of the Australasian Systematic Botany Society (ASBS).
Dr Katharina Nargar, President of ASBS, said the award honoured Dr May’s longstanding and significant contribution to the discovery, description, understanding and conservation of Australia’s vast fungal diversity.
The award was presented recently at the Biosystematics 2023 Conference in Canberra, jointly organised by ASBS which promotes the study of the relationships and evolution of plants in Australasia, many of which are unique to the region.
Dr May said, “It all started with what seemed like a simple question ‘What mushroom is that?’. I was in the Tinderry Range near Canberra one autumn in the early 1980s and came across a multitude of mushrooms of different shapes and colours and wondered what to call them.
This question led to a project still underway to compile a comprehensive list of Australian fungi, now part of the Australian National Species List.
With only 10% of the fungi kingdom known to science, knowing what fungi are here is vital not just for taxonomy (the science of cataloguing organisms) but also for biosecurity, conservation, industrial and medical applications.”
Cataloguing the vast diversity of Australia’s fungi is now part of an overall mission to document all the animals, plants and fungi of the continent – advocated by Taxonomy Australia, a peak body for taxonomists across Australia and Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, as part of its Science Strategy.
Tom has played critical roles in engaging with and setting up organisations to strengthen ties among mycologists and citizen scientists with an interest in fungi, participating in founding Fungimap and the Australasian Mycological Society, serving as a President of the Field Naturalists Club of Victoria and current Deputy Chair of Taxonomy Australia.
A champion of fungi-specific language such as ‘fungarium’, ‘funga’ and ‘sporing body’, Tom is active in raising awareness of the vital ecological roles of fungi and the need to address their conservation.
“When I first noticed those mushrooms in the Tinderry Range, I had no idea that one day my wondering about how to identify them would lead to adding fungi to the IUCN Red List, and advising on study guides for fungi as part of the US curriculum.
I have seen mycology transform into a mega science with tools that make answering questions about fungi tractable, especially DNA sequencing, which opens the door to documenting the dark taxa in the fungi world,” he said.
Mycologists predict that there are millions of species of fungi yet to be formally described. Now we can detect hundreds of these ‘dark taxa’ in any handful of soil.
Director and Chief Executive at Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, David Harland, said, “This is a fitting recognition of Tom’s great contribution to mycology over many years and it is significant also as mycology emerges as a ‘super-science’ that we have our very own super-mycologist! Tom’s passion, enthusiasm and big-picture thinking in this field set him apart and we are just delighted that he has been recognised this way.”