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Terfezia arenaria (Moris) Trappe

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Scientific name
Terfezia arenaria
(Moris) Trappe
Common names
Moroccan desert truffle
Damascus truffle
terfez (also terfesse, terfex, torfâs, torfez)
فقع (fuga); كمأة (hama, kama, kameh or thama); الرعد نبات (nahbaat alra’ad); ترفاس (terfas)
doliman; dombalan; touboulane
catatunfuli janchi; tartufo delle sabie; tartufo giallo; trafullu, trefulli; truffi; turnera
batata de terra; criadilha; drava; halpoutza; quiza; regota; túbera
bataca; catilles, criada; criadilla; criadilla del clevo; criadilla de tierra; criadilla vaquera
criailla; falsa trufa; mayeras; pataca; patata de jara; patata de tierra; pedo de zorro; rojilla
topera; trufa; trufa de arena; trufa de león; trufa del desierto; turma; turma de tierra, turmax
doliman; domalan; kameh
Степной трюфель, закавказский трюфель
IUCN Specialist Group
Cup-fungi, Truffles and Allies
Assessment status
Under Assessment
Proposed by
David Minter
David Minter
Eugene Popov
Comments etc.
Anders Dahlberg

Assessment Notes

Taxonomic notes

Why suggested for a Global Red List Assessment?

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.

Geographic range

AFRICA: Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia. ASIA: Azerbaijan, China (Hebei), Cyprus, Iraq, Israel, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, former Soviet Union, Syria, Turkey, United Arab Emirates. ATLANTIC OCEAN: Spain (Islas Canarias). EUROPE: Croatia, France, Greece, Italy (including Sardinia and Sicily), Portugal, Romania, Spain, Turkey. Perhaps native throughout its recorded range, but at least some records from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia may be market imports from north Africa (ALSHEIKH, 1989). 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]. It seems likely the species also occurs in Egypt and Libya, but no published evidence has been found for this. No information about altitudinal distribution has been found. Records supposedly from Sweden, 19th century (GBIF) and the UK (MASSEE, 1909) are not accepted here.

Population and Trends

Over 200 records from scientific sources (specimens, databases and bibliographic sources combined, excluding duplicates) from at least 1845 to April 2010, with observations in January, February, March, April, May, June, August, November and December. 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.

Recent interest in commercial possibilities for desert truffles, combined with an increase in recording by a few amateur and professional mycologists has meant a surge of records in southern Europe. This is not, however, evidence for an increase in European populations. There is no information about population levels in north Africa and southwest Asia, the other main areas of distribution of this species.

Using IUCN Categories & Criteria, MINTER (2013) evaluated this species globally as vulnerable.

Population Trend: Decreasing

Habitat and Ecology

This species forms mycorrhizas with a range of flowering plants. AL-WHAIBI (2009) provided a general review of desert plants and mycorrhizas. FORTAS & CHEVALLIER (1992a) showed that in Algeria this fungus forms two different types of mycorrhiza with Tuberaria guttata (as Helianthemum guttatum), depending on soil fertility: ectomycorrhizas in phosphorus rich substrata, and ectendomycorrhizas in phosphorus deficient substrata. In Spain, “turmerieri” (based on a vernacular name for this fungus) is the word used for ecosystems where the Cistaceae are prominent (LAZARO IBIZA, 1908), and in Andalucía in particular, the plant Xolantha guttata (which is a mycorrhizal associate of T. arenaria) is well known to some rural people as an indicator of this fungus, and has the vernacular names “hierba turmera”, “madre de la criadilla” which reflect that association (MORENO ARROYO ET AL., 2005). Terfezia arenaria prefers calcareous soils, where T. claveryi Chatin prefers acid soils (HONRUBIA ET AL., 1992). It has been observed in the company of Tuber gennadii and Tuber lacunosum (ALVARADO ET AL., 2012). No records have been found of associations with other fungi, or of interactions with animals, but these are highly likely to occur: Terfezia boudieri Chatin and T. claveryi Chatin, for example, are each known to be associated with at least 20 other fungal species growing in and around their ascomata. 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). Terfezia arenaria has been been recorded from the following habitats: amenity & protected areas (national parks); coastal (maritime sands); desert (arid scrub, dunes, semi-desert); grassland; woodland (eucalyptus plantations, pine woodland).

Associated organisms. Fungi. Tuber gennadii (Chatin) Pat., T. lacunosum Mattir. Plantae. Cistus ladanifer L. (mycorrhizal), C. monspeliensis L. (mycorrhizal), C. salvifolius L. (mycorrhizal); Eucalyptus sp.; Helianthemum sessiliflorum (Desf.) Pers. (mycorrhizal); Pinus edulis Engelm., P. pinaster Aiton, Pinus sp.; Quercus coccifera L., Q. robur L.; Tuberaria guttata (L.) Fourr. [also as Helianthemum guttatum (L.) P. Mill. and Xolantha guttata (L.) Raf.] (mycorrhizal).

In conservation terms, species of Terfezia are iconic and have the potential to be flagship species: T. arenaria was one of several illustrated on postage stamps of Algeria in 1983 (MOSS & DUNKLEY, 1988). This and other species of Terfezia and Tirmania are of great interest in ethnomycology. As one of the few readily available foods in the deserts of north Africa and southwest Asia, a body of folklore has built up round them, including several citations in Islamic and Jewish religious texts. There have, for example, been many suggestions that they were the “manna” which the bible says was gathered by the Israelites during their time in the desert (PEGLER, 2002). Desert truffles of the genera Terfezia and Tirmania have particular religious significance in Islam. In three of the hadiths (traditional reports of the sayings and deeds of Muhammed the Prophet which form an important corpus on which much Islamic law is based), Muhammed is reported to have defined desert truffles as a type of “manna” (gift from God), and described their medicinal properties for diseases of the eyes [http://islamicstudies.islammessage.com/ResearchPaper.aspx?aid=1429]. On YouTube [an Internet resource] there are many sermons by influential Islamic clerics discussing these hadiths in detail, usually in Arabic, but occasionally with English subtitles [e.g. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=88G-MoWEFzE]. Much of the Arabic language Internet coverage of these species concentrates on interpretation of these texts (G. SOLIMAN, pers.comm.), and this species is cited in connexion with mediaeval Islamic dental care (RISPLER-CHAIM, 1992). On seeing potatoes for the first time, some early Spanish explorers of the Americas mistook them for Terfezia ascomata.


This fungus is of economic importance in a variety of ways. Collecting from the wild is unregulated.

Medical, medicinal and cosmetic uses. A US patent application lists T. arenaria as one of several hypogeous species used in a treatment for senile cataracts (MORGAN, 2011). Because of its antioxidant properties, inclusion of this species in the “plant” [sic] component of a balanced diet may reduce some cancer risks (KAPISZEWSKA, 2006). An in vitro study using aqueous extracts of this fungus, however, found no evidence of antibacterial activity (GOUZI ET AL., 2011). Polyphenol oxidase, which has many applications in medicine and food processing, has been extracted from T. arenaria [as T. leonis] (GOUZI ET AL., 2013a), and an optical biosensor for dopamine, a neurotransmitter implicated in several serious medical conditions, has been developed using these extracts (GOUZI ET AL., 2013b). This fungus has been cited in a patent application as an optional ingredient of a cosmetic preparation (GOLZ-BERNER & ZASTROW, 2005).

As food. This species is widely collected and eaten or sold as food in many parts of north Africa and southwestern Asia, being usually the main desert truffle to be used in this way. It has a long history of culinary use dating back well over 2300 years, and is highly prized for its culinary qualities: a popular account with information about some ways in which it can be prepared was provided by LOIZIDES ET AL. (2012). 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.).

In Spain, this fungus has been recognized as a food since at least the early seventeenth century (CIENFUEGOS, 1626-1631; MENÉNDEZ DE LUARCA & TARDÍO PATO, 2005) and is now commercially collected and sold locally as food in several parts of the country (DE ROMÁN & BOA, 2004). The possibility of developing recreational collection of this and other species in Spain as an aid to revival of rural economies has been explored (GARCÍA, 2008). Ecotourism holidays in Morocco, learning how to find, collect and cook this species are advertized on the Internet [for example, http://www.sejours-maroc.org/morocco/terfezia-moroccan-desert-truffles-22.html, accessed 30 September 2013]. Accumulation of radionucleotides by this species is therefore a concern (GUILLÉN GERADA, 2002). Ascomata are collected and eaten boiled or roasted in Sicily (VENTURELLA & SAITTA, 2003). A detailed analysis of prospects for commercial use of this species in Portugal was provided by GRAVITO HENRIQUES (2012a) and GRAVITO HENRIQUES (2012b). The nutritional value of the fungus has been assessed (MORENO-ROJAS ET AL., 2005), but the economic benefit of these activities seems never to have been formally evaluated.

In addition to unregulated collecting, this species faces other threats.

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. Ascomata of T. arenaria are known to accumulate radionucleotides (GUILLÉN GERADA, 2002), but the impact of this on the species is not known. 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. At a local level, GRAVITO HENRIQUES (2012a) listed various threats including overgrazing, trampling, and encroachment of scrub.

Conservation Actions

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, Georgia, Greece, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Portugal, Qatar, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates (all countries from which species of Terfezia 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. There is a need to raise awareness about the conservation needs of this species with appropriate authorities in the countries in which it occurs.

Research needed

Use and Trade


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Country occurrence

Regional Population and Trends

Country Trend Redlisted