Tiny and extremely hard to spot, they have evaded science for centuries.

But it’s now emerged that four new Scottish species of fungi have been identified by scientists at Scotland’s leading botanical garden since the start of lockdown.

The miniscule fungi, found by scientists at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE), are in addition to three new species of toadstools which were identified in 2020 by experts at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

One of identified toadstools was found in Caithness, and the other two in the Black Wood of Rannoch. They are part of a prolific group of fungi known as web caps, because they are covered by a cap of threads resembling spider's webs.

The toadstools live in harmony with trees, helping the likes of oak, beech, birch and pine absorb water and nutrients.

The four new species identified by the RGBE scientists since the start of lockdown include two types of Opegraphaceae, a type of lichenized fungi, and two species of Tremellaceae – parasitic fungi that live on lichen. One was found in Glen Feshie and the other in Glen Fenzie.

The new Scottish species are among more than 70 new types of plant identified by the RBGE staff since lockdown began, including dozens of threatened species, most of them native to tropical climates.

They include 55 flowering plants including eight new gingers, salvias, impatiens, liverworts and nine single-celled diatoms.

Two new Scottish diatoms were identified by the scientists in 2019.

In some cases, the plants have been growing within specialist facilities in Scotland before being formally named, and are often the result of research by RBGE and its international partners around the world including Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and Laos, South America and the rainforests of Central Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The RBGE scientists typically identify more than 35 new species every year – roughly one plant every week. However, it is unusual for new Scottish species to be identified.

New plants and fungi are discovered around the world at the rate of about 2,000 a year.

Last week RBG Kew named approximately 205 plants and fungi from Africa, Asia, the Americas and the UK which have been identified in the past year.

They include a killer insect-trapping tobacco plant, Nicotiana insecticida, collected in Western Australia by a truck stop on the Northwest Coastal Highway in Western Australia. It was cultivated back in London in the glasshouses at Kew Gardens, where the plants continued to kill insects providing that its insidious deadly nature is not diminished by the great distance from its homeland.

The list also includes a new species of fungi hidden within a wild banana seed, 16 new orchids including a ‘ghost’ orchid that grows in almost complete darkness, and five new species of Cape primroses from the Democratic Republic of Congo among them one which is particularly vulnerable to extinction due to its proximity to copper mines.

Scientists at Kew point out that some could be important for people and planet – providing vital income to communities, having the potential to be developed into a future food or medicine, or simply keeping the habitat around them thriving.

The first new species of 2022 has already been identified, having first been collected by a Scottish scientist, Lorna MacKinnon, 15 years ago during an expedition in the Cameroon rainforest.

The tree, Uvariopsis dicaprio, has been named in honour of Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio in recognition of his conservation work and efforts to raise awareness of the impact of logging on rare Ebo species.

Already branded as ‘critically endangered’, it features glossy, yellow-green flowers and grows to four metres tall. It will be considered a member of the ylang ylang family.

The tree only grows in the Cameroon forest and was spotted by Lorna, from Glasgow, who took samples back to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, where it has now been formally named.

Lorna said: “It was my first job after I graduated. The area is incredibly species rich and relatively under-collected particularly at that time. I was collecting anything that looked of interest.

“The collections were made and went to the herbarium waiting to be looked at by specialists.

“During lockdown, senior researcher Dr Martin Cheek and other members of the team were going through specimens and looking at photographs and recognised it as a new species.”

Dr Martin Cheek, Senior Researcher in RBG Kew’s Africa team says: “It’s easy to assume that we know all of the plant and fungi species on our planet.

“ There are wonderful apps that enable identification of plant species in the UK and other countries where species diversity is low and well-studied.

“But in most parts of the tropics, identification of plants is still a big challenge, and thousands of species still remain without scientific names. This is a problem because until a species has a scientific name, assessment of its extinction risk is near impossible, and that makes protection from extinction and research into its properties, incredibly difficult.

“Sadly, several species in 2021’s list are already considered as under threat of extinction from increasing threats to their natural habitat, and three are already believed to be extinct in the wild. This list is another reminder that this is our last chance to find unknown species, name them and hopefully protect them before they become globally extinct.”