This is a species living in an extreme environment. There is unregulated international trade in this species. Levels of trade are not known, but are clearly large and growing. The fungus is also threatened in some places by road and urban development and by the effects of war.
AFRICA: Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia. ASIA: Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia. EUROPE: Spain. Native throughout its recorded range. Inconclusive evidence suggests this species may also extend into Mauritania and Western Sahara in the west (VOLPATO ET AL., 2013), and into Oman in the east [www.squ.edu.om/Portals/33/almasar/Horizonnew207.pdf, accessed 3 October 2013]. No information about altitudinal distribution has been found.
Not known. Over 30 records from scientific sources (specimens, databases and bibliographic sources combined, excluding duplicates) from at least 1799 to January 1998, with observations in January, February, March and April. Most of the evidence used in the present study derives from collections or market purchases for scientific study. There is almost no information currently available from rural collector-suppliers, or from their commercial buyers about geographical distribution and abundance, and high quality information from such sources is necessary for evaluating threats and conservation status.
Said to be rare in Spain (MORENO ET AL., 2000). Common in the Qatar desert (AL-THANI, 2010).
MINTER (2013), using IUCN Categories & Criteria, evaluated this species as Vulnerable.
Population Trend: Deteriorating
This species is associated with many other organisms. FUNGI. Achaetomium sp.; Acremonium strictum W. Gams; Alternaria alternata (Fr.) Keissl.; Aspergillus flavus Link, A. fumigatus Fresen., A. niger Tiegh., A. ochraceus G. Wilh., A. terreus Thom; Chaetomium bostrychodes Zopf, C. globosum Kunze; Cladosporium herbarum (Pers.) Link; Cochliobolus australiensis (Tsuda & Ueyama) Alcorn [as Drechslera australiensis Bugnic. ex M.B. Ellis], C. hawaiiensis Alcorn [as Drechslera hawaiiensis Bugnic. ex M.B. Ellis], C. lunatus R.R. Nelson & F.A. Haasis [as Curvularia lunata (Wakker) Boedijn], C. sativus (S. Ito & Kirub) Drechsler ex Dastur; Fusarium oxysporum Schltdl.; Melanospora zamiae Corda; Mucor circinelloides Tiegh., M. hiemalis Wehmer, M. racemosus Fresen.; Penicillium digitatum (Pers.) Sacc., P. echinulatum Raper & Thom ex Fassat.; Pleospora tarda E.G. Simmons [as Stemphylium botryosum Wallr.]; Rhizomucor miehei (Cooney & R. Emers.) Schipper; Rhizopus stolonifer (Ehrenb.) Vuill.; Setosphaeria rostrata K.J. Leonard; Sordaria sp.; Syncephalastrum racemosum Cohn ex J. Schröt.; Terfezia boudieri Chatin, T. claveryi Chatin; Ulocladium atrum Preuss, U. tuberculatum E.G. Simmons. MONERA. Bacteria indet. PLANTAE. Carex stenophyllum Wahlenb.; Helianthemum ledifolium (L.) Mill., H. lippii (L.) Dum. Cours., H. salicifolium (L.) P. Mill., Helianthemum sp. (mycorrhizal); Olea europaea L.; Zygophyllum qatarense Hadidi (mycorrhizal).
It forms mycorrhizas with a range of flowering plants. AL-WHAIBI (2009) provided a general review of desert plants and mycorrhizas. No records have been found of interactions with animals, but these are highly likely to occur. Studies in Saudi Arabia (BOKHARY & PARVEZ, 1992a; BOKHARY & PARVEZ, 1992b; BOKHARY ET AL., 1990), Egypt (MOHAWED ET AL., 2001) and Iran (JAMALI & BANIHASHEMI, 2012b) have shown that ascomata of T. nivea are associated with many other mostly ascomycetous fungi, and with bacteria. The fungi include glucophilic and halophilic species, fungi which can produce mycotoxins, and some potential plant pathogens (JAMALI & BANIHASHEMI, 2012b). Nothing seems to be known about the relationships between these species, and their ecological role. Species of Terfezia and Tirmania need a certain minimum amount of precipitation in a given year before they produce ascomata. In Kuwait, that minimum was reported to be 180 mm well distributed from October through to March (AWAMAH & ALSHEIKH, 1979). Tirmania nivea has been recorded from the following habitats: amenity & protected areas (national parks); desert (arid scrub, dunes, semi-desert).
Living in the difficult environment of dry deserts, this species is adapted to survive at levels of heat and water stress which would be very unfavourable for other fungi. As a result, it already lives in conditions near the limit for sustainable life. Climate change and global warming in particular are likely to be significant long-term threats. Deserts are ecosystems on which humans tend to place little monetary value. Habitat destruction through war, irrigation, development of recreational facilities such as golf courses, disturbance of soil (for example by tourist safaris using 4-wheel drive vehicles), construction of solar energy facilities, establishment of refugee camps, and similar developments are all likely to threaten the ecosystems where this fungus occurs. MOUBASHER (2010) reported that, in Egypt, of the two main areas known for desert truffles, one on the Mediterranean coast west of Alexandria was being destroyed by construction of factories, recreational areas, retirement homes, roads, tourist villages and similar developments, while the other, in the Sinai Peninsula was seriously disturbed by military activities. ALSHEIKH (1989) reviewed the serious and damaging impact of war on desert truffle populations in Kuwait in the 1990s, and in other parts of southwest Asia and north Africa during the 20th century. In many areas where this species occurs, social upheaval and war continue. Paradoxically, the civil unrest experienced in many countries where this fungus occurs may help to protect it: the possibility of encountering landmines is likely to deter many collectors (ALSHEIKH, 1989). Pollution is also sometimes a serious threat. The firing of Kuwait oil wells as an act of war in 1991 affected populations of desert truffles over a wide area (ALSHEIKH, 1989). Nothing is known about the effect of oil pollution in soils on these fungi, but it is likely to be long-term. Formerly, harvesting of this species as a wild crop was carried out by rural populations for sustainable local consumption, but in the past twenty years there has been a significant increase in commercial harvesting in connexion with international trade,and the impact of this has never been evaluated, although there are reports that harvesting by refugees as their sole form of income is having a negative impact on populations (VOLPATO ET AL., 2013). There has been considerable interest in the possibility of cultivating desert truffles. If that happens, there will be the danger that a few genotypes favourable to cultivation will be used, and these may swamp the wild populations resulting in a loss of genetic diversity.
There is a significant and international on-line trade in these fungi. Ascomata of Terfezia and Tirmania not identified to species level are collectively marketed on the Internet as “desert truffles”, and commercial websites exist offering them for sale. On one site the price was €35-75 per kilogram with a minimum order of 100 kilograms and a claim by the vendor that 1000 kilograms per day could be supplied [www.alibaba.com/showroom/fresh-desert-truffles.html, accessed 29 October 2013]. The trade is secretive, with no easy access to addresses, and at most only very general information about the sources of the product. The English language websites are likely to be only a small part of the total market, and much of the trade and negotiations now seems to be conducted in Arabic through social networking sites like Facebook (G. SOLIMAN, pers.comm.).
Awareness of the importance of these desert truffles is very low even at governmental level: a survey of the most recent relevant national action plans and reports for the Rio Convention on Biological Diversity [www.cbd.int/nbsap/search/default.shtml, accessed 4 October 2013] by Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Kuwait, Libya, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Tunisia, Turkey and Yemen (all countries from which species of Tirmania - but not necessarily T. nivea - have been recorded) showed that only Morocco and Saudi Arabia had any conservation plans. Both of these countries recognized that there might be a problem of over-exploitation; Saudi Arabia also described this species as of high conservation priority, and expressed concern about unregulated harvesting and damage by off-road use of vehicles. The appropriate conservation authorities in these countries need to be made aware of the need to protect this species.
Much more information is needed about the secretive and unregulated international trade in this species.
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