Lichen’s Friends Help Monitor Pollution

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Lichens have been used for many years, in many places around the world, to monitor air pollution. Lichens absorb almost anything in the air, and then can tell us what substances are there that are invisible to us. Now humans are beginning to also use bryophytes (mosses) to monitor air quality.

Moss and lichen on rock – Wintergreen Trail, Kickapoo Valley Reserve

The mosses change in many ways in response to the poisons we put into the air. Lichens have been mostly used to measure the substances they have absorbed, but the study of mosses in polluted air is looking at the changes in the moss too.

Here in the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, the newest lichen observation site, at the intersection of County P and Cutoff Road, provides a glimpse of how lichens and moss respond to pollution even in a place that seems clean to us. The rock walls at this intersection hold the poisons spewed from our cars, and the lichen and mosses growing here are different than ones growing away from the concentrated toxins along the road.

It is an easy place to view lichen that can survive these conditions. Then, take a walk along the Wintergreen Trail, where numerous different lichen and moss can be seen as they change through the seasons. All forms of lichen can be found in this area: foliose, crustose, fruticose.

Lecanora thysanophora +HO trail 6-17
Lichens on tree in KVR

On the rocks by the roadway, there are only limited species of crustose and if you look carefully you may find some small foliose.

CO R south facing- 10-17a
Lichen on roadside rock

There are countless ways that our Kin in the natural world around us talk to us about what is going on and even what we are doing. Learning to listen and understand is an important part of our being able to change enough to do more than survive in the future, it is essential for our ability to thrive and live well. Learning to listen, then understand is similar to learning a new language. English is not spoken by trees, fungi, birds or any of our Kin, with some small exceptions. We however are easily multi-lingual and have the responsibility of learning the language of those older and wiser than us.

The Tiny Ones often have important things to say. Even if you don’t ‘know their language’ the observations made by researchers share with all of us some of what lichens and their friends are doing to live in a polluted world, and what these small, seemingly insignificant lives can teach us.

As the snow melts, the lichen are taking on brighter colors and are very easy to see. Take your hand lens when you go walking. Look closely at the lichens. It’s a good time to see some of their elaborate, beautiful structures and colors.

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