Updated: Jun 18, 2019
Tom May is really into the small but important things in life. Fungi.
His career as one of the world's pre-eminent mycologists, though, is almost accidental, and may not have happened at all if he'd been somewhere other than near Michelago in southern New South Wales on a cold autumn day in the early 1980s.
Tom grew up in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, at a time when there was more bush around than there is now. Like many kids, he was really into bugs and birds, and kept busy with an insect collection, birdwatching, and generally getting to know nature in a muddy kid kind of way. He was destined to be a naturalist or biologist of some sort. At that time he'd probably kicked over some puffballs, but thought no more about fungi than any other adventurous kid would.
Following his love of all things in the bush, Tom completed a biology undergraduate degree at the University of Melbourne. He became interested in genetics, ecology and population ecology, co-authoring papers like 'Genetic variation at the Alcohol Dehydrogenase locus in Drosophila melanogaster in relation to environmental variation: ethanol levels in breeding sites and allozyme frequencies'. It's fair to say that Tom could easily have been lost to taxonomy, and fungi, at this point.
And that's where the autumn day in the 1980s changed everything. While working at the Australian National University, Tom lived near Michelago, not far south of Canberra, in a house backing on to the Tinderry Range. On that autumn day he found himself poking around in the bush there, just for fun.
It was a good autumn. The break - the first good rains after the summer - had happened a few weeks before. The nights were cool, the ground was nicely moistened. Anyone who's been in a good patch of bush at this time of year will know that this is when mushrooms and other fungi do their thing (at least, it's the time of year when we notice them doing their thing). The bush can be carpeted with brilliantly coloured, fantastic-looking fungi, all making their sporing bodies and spreading their spores. Tom was astonished by their diversity of form and colour. He decided he wanted to know what they were called. And so, it started.
After checking out the University library in Canberra, Tom discovered that it was almost impossible to figure out the names of all the fungi he'd just seen. There were no comprehensive field guides, certainly none with colour photographs, and of course none of the websites or other resources we have today. Clearly, working out 'what fungus is that' was going to take some work. And so started a lifelong career in fungal taxonomy, ecology, natural history, nomenclature and systematics; working mainly at Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria.
While it was perhaps a bit unusual in the early 1980s to be interested in fungi, today Tom is far from alone. In 1996 he established FungiMap, a very successful citizen science project aimed at understanding the distributions and biology of common Australian fungi. Hundreds of people have become obsessed with fungi through FungiMap. With colleagues all over the world Tom is exploring the incredible diversity of fungi, not only the ones that are easily seen when they produce visible sporing bodies such as mushrooms, but also the vast number of species - most still un-named - that live their whole lives microscopic.
And it was through this international work that Tom became one of the few people alive who has helped name a new Kingdom of life. Kingdoms are the second level in our taxonomic hierarchy (after Domain, of which there are just three). Biology students used to learn that there were two kingdoms - plants and animals. Of course, life is way more diverse than that. Fungi now form their own Kingdom, more closely related to animals than they are to plants.
But for years there have been, floating around in a taxonomic grey zone, many strange creatures that don't readily fit into plants, animals, or fungi. Two such enigmatic groups are the microscopic nucleariids, amoeba-like organisms that live in soils and fresh water, and the fonticulids, microscopic forms with the appearance of minute volcanos. For many years the placement of nucleariids and fonticulids was uncertain, but they were usually shoehorned into the animal kingdom.
This inability to place groups like the nucleariids and fonticulids all changed with the ready availability of genetic sequences, which give us an unprecedented insight into the evolution and relationships of life. In 2018 Tom was a co-author on a key paper that created a new classification that elevated the nucleariids and foncticulids into their own Kingdom Nucleariae, more closely related to Kingdom Fungi than to Kingdom Animalia. Now that doesn't happen every day.
Nucleariae is one of the smallest of all known Kingdoms, with maybe a couple of dozen named species (although there are intriguing hints of much greater diversity in some habitats such as sea sediments). Fungi, by contrast, may be one of the largest and most diverse Kingdoms of all, perhaps with as many as 5 million species.
Fungi are also now recognised as one of the most important Kingdoms of life. They help make our soils alive and fertile, they help and connect plants in more ways than we yet understand, they keep insect pests under check, they provide food and sustenance for vast numbers of creatures great and small - in a word, they help run the planet. Without fungi, the Earth would be a vastly poorer place.