For some time lichenologists have known of two species of lichen that are made of the same algae and the same fungi partners, but appear very different. One has vulpinic acid, which makes the lichen bright yellow, the other is dark brown. Recently scientists began looking for more than one algae species in these lichens and found a mystery resident ; a basidiomycete yeast that lives in one species but not the other. Sorting through all the possible partners in a lichen seems daunting, but these scientists are up to the task. They hope to be able to induce lichen to form in vitro, so they can study up on some of their questions without collecting lichen from the wild. Did you know that lichen will not create themselves in an artificial environment? They know the difference.
Take a tour of beautiful lichen pictures while pondering whether those two lichens, one bright yellow and one brown, are really two separate species, and whether there could be more residents in any of those colorful Tiny Ones than we think, and whether they could be up to other behaviors and actions that we have no idea about yet.
It’s hard to believe that a living being that holds so still can be doing so much! Sequestering nitrogen from the air, absorbing poisons from our air pollution, making nutrients available to the trees they are attached to, making soil out of rocks, providing medicine for birds and animals in the form of antibiotics that the lichens make, insulating nests and dens, and much more. Lichen continue to quietly go about their work in the world, so slow down on your next walk in the woods, and look for the Tiny Ones on tree trunks and rocks. Put your ear down close to the ground or the bark and listen. Take a hand lens, and look closely. What’s going on?
Let me know what you find!
As in any well done science work, new information that can be verified may change our understanding of the world. We can only learn ‘the next step’, we can never completely know the depth and complexity of the world from any one perspective. And so now lichenologists have found something new going on in lichens that revised our understanding of when lichens first appeared on earth as well as what makes a lichen; at least certain lichens. I suspect they will always fool us; they are too complex to box into a category and leave them there.
The study originally looked for reasons some fungi and algae ‘hug’ each other and don’t let go. But along the way, the evidence seemed to show that fungi figured out how to do this in many places and times, not just from one ancestor. The earliest fungi to do this, that humans have evidence of so far, do not show up before ferns and a few other plants. So it may be that lichen did not colonize land before plants.
There may still be more surprises in the fossil records, and we may need to revise this story again in the future. It’s like a big puzzle; each piece is useful but only part of the picture. Even though we don’t have the whole puzzle figured out, we do see part of the story. Making adjustments, like sorting pieces-sky pieces we know go near the top of the puzzle, water pieces near the bottom- helps understand the patterns of life on earth even as we continue to search for the details.
For a life as simple looking as lichen are (to us), they do have amazing abilities to be flexible and adaptable; traits we might find useful. So the scientists continue to look for why and how the lichen do what they do, and I’ll let you know when I find out too!
(The title image is Chicken-of-the-Woods, growing behind my horse barn, on an old log.)
I have good friends in Canada who are film makers, and currently they are making a documentary on Chronic Wasting Disease. Of course, Wisconsin was one of their destinations for filming, as well as western states, England and Norway. If you eat meat, or simply care about the health of wildlife, it is probably a good idea to pay attention to new information on this and similar diseases, as information is updated. One of the team members who has been working on CWD in Canada for many years told me about some research on lichens and prion disease . The Tiny Ones continue to amaze with yet another complex and very particular activity they perform, unknown to us. It may be very useful to us to learn how they deal with prions. This research is a start.
The researchers found three lichens that affected prions. One of them was Parmelia sulcata, pictured above with friends Moss and Flavopunctilia sp. The other two lichens were Lobaria pulmonaria and Cladonia rangiferina. I don’t think that Cladonia grows in this part of Wisconsin, but Lobaria pulmonaria does; sorry I don’t have an image for this post. Check Sharnoff’s lichen pages for images. These three lichens have a serine protease activity that breaks down the prion. The only way humans know how to break down a prion is with the use of extreme heat, high Ph levels and the use of detergents. There may be many ways that lichens can affect prions; the scientists are just getting started looking at how lichens do what they do. It probably is the fungal, mycobiont that is affecting the prion changes, but the researchers have many questions yet about how the lichens do what they do. We have talked about the many complexities of the lichens’ interactions with the environment, and unanswered questions we have, in other posts, so this isn’t new to Kickapoo Lichen Lovers!
Humans have just started looking at what the lichens are doing, and there are thousands of lichens, so it would be reasonable to suspect other species may have similar abilities.
I love to think about why certain lichens would find it useful to de-activate prions. What interactions might occur in their part of the world, that causes a lichen to even notice a prion? Could a prion harm lichens? Does a prion interfere with photosynthesis, or other functions of the photobiont or mycobiont partners? Maybe the mycobiont is simply ‘hunting’….just to bag that rare prion. (It’s ok to laugh….)
We have known for a long time that lichens have many antibiotic properties; maybe half the lichen species humans have checked have some antibiotic function. Birds line nests with known antibiotic-making lichens, which may keep nestlings safer from disease. We know lichens can detoxify pollutants they extract from the air. Maybe one of their functions in the world is to clean things up.
We will never know all the reasons, or all that any plant or animal does with its life that is useful and necessary for the other plants, animals, microbes, insects, and everyone else in the Web of Life. Learning even a small part of what’s going on around us opens us up to wonder, and sparks interest and then, with any luck for all the other life on earth, we are motivated to take care, and do less harm. The news that my special friends the Lichens are already dealing with prions made me laugh. Of course! They have been here millions of years longer than us, and have had a long time to develop elegant responses to the world around them. May we be able to follow their example.
It’s been an icy and variable winter, making for hard to travel trails much of the time. After a warm spell I hiked with two friends to Black Hawk Rock in mid April on dry trails the whole way. This year in April, the lichens are still mostly dormant and their colors are muted. They very much want to cover the whole surface of the rocky ledge, but humans also very much want to perch on these rocks, and their heavy steps damage the lichens so there are numerous bare areas too. There’s room for all here, so please watch your step and avoid the areas where lichens are living.
The most obvious lichens are on the rocks, but take time to look at the cedar and oak trees. They support many lichens.
These are a few of the beautiful lichens living on the cedar trees at the summit. Lichens on the soil, rocks on the ground and at the base of the cliffs were all quite subdued compared to the last time I visited. Photographing the lichens on the rock summit and certain trees along the trail and comparing the images over time will allow us to learn about how lichens are changing in growth, species changes and generally how healthy they are. This is not a controlled experiment! I am casually observing on an irregular basis. Anyone who has observations to share about lichens please send your information to me, to add to the KVR information on our ecosystem.
A few days after visiting Black Hawk Rock, I walked part way up Little Canada trail, stepping around the muddy spots. There were many small branches on the ground from the recent stormy weather. Some had been on the ground for a while, so the lichens were beginning to die and the fungi, such as Turkey Tail, and also mosses were well established on the branches. After windy weather is an excellent time to search for evidence of lichens living in the canopy of the forest. It is almost impossible to see them unless they have the misfortune of falling to the ground. There may be lichens in the canopy that are not growing near the ground so it is valuable to check those fresh twigs we usually walk by without noticing.
The above photo shows an old branch from the canopy on Little Canada trail. It is a good example of the transition between a living tree and lichens and the fungi and moss that begin to grow as the tree dies. Gradually the tree becomes moss, fungi and then eventually forest soil that other trees will grow from, and the lichen will again appear on the new tree.
This is an branch of lichen in the canopy of the forest on Little Canada trail. The Parmotrema and Physcia lichen will live in lower areas of hardwood trees too. This branch has been on the ground for at least part of a year. The bark as well as the lichens are deteriorating but it is still possible to see the large size and complex structure covering the branch. The numerous small brown cups with blue gray foliose areas is the Physcia, the large, convoluted, leafy- looking greenish lichen is the Parmotrema.
Finding lichens from the canopy of the forest is an important part of learning about how healthy the forest is, and understanding the whole of the dynamic processes that are essential for sustainability. Considering only the species we are interested in for our own use, or because we think they are beautiful has led to many complicated problems in the Web of Life. The Tiny Ones, of all varieties (anyone small enough we have to slow down, look closely to see, or can’t see at all) are an essential part of sustainable life on Earth. As we learn to recognize them, and understand what they do, we will be able to make better decisions about how to interact with the rest of the world, and not least, will have endless new questions to ask and wonders to explore.
If you’d like to share a Liken’ Lichen Hike this spring or summer, contact me anytime. And please share this blog to help the KVR share our love of Lichens!
My friend Peter Schmidt was visiting Germany recently and found this tree branch in a woodland area. He thoughtfully shared it with your local Lichen Hunter. I have no idea what it is, but am going to spend some time with my lichen resources to challenge myself.
On the left there are some distant branches with yellow lichen; a careful look around this woodland might find more interesting species in addition to these bright yellow ones.
Here’s a closer view. Although the resolution is not good enlarged, we can see it is a foliose type of lichen; it has some leafy growth in areas and looks wrinkled, as if it is not tightly attached to the branch, as a crustose lichen would be.
Last summer I posted images from British Columbia, Canada, of the yellow lichens that are very common there in the fir and spruce forests.
The Letharia is a fruticose type lichen; it has branches, grows upright or trailing and is attached to the tree at small, discrete spots, just like a shrub growing in the ground.
Letharia vulpina uses vulpinic acid to make the yellow color, which is poisonous. In some parts of the north it has been used as a poison to kill wolves and other animals. It is toxic to any meat-eating mammal, as well as to molluscs and insects. But it does not affect mice and rabbits! The lichens use vulpinic acid to control the amount of light absorbed. (Lichen Biology, Thomas H. Nash III). The German lichen may use a different chemical to make its yellow color; a mystery I won’t solve today.
Remember, look for the Tiny Ones when you are out walking.
There are numerous people who have been writing about the world we live in, in a way different than the explorers and scientists of years ago. Of these newer voices (there are some are of an earlier time) Robin Kimmerer is one writer I feel a particular kinship with, as she writes of mosses. To me, lichen and moss share a similar place in the world even though they have unique qualities and functions. They are of the ‘Tiny Ones’ as I call them; the ones we do not notice while we are watching out for the large, moving, and to us thrilling big animals, or giant trees or rare birds.
Ms. Kimmerer speaks of relationships; she orients us to life from the ground up, from the small lives that weave all the Web of Life together, and then make most of the adjustments to keep the whole Dance alive. If you are interested in the lichens’ intricate world that is almost hidden in the forests you enjoy on hikes and rides and paddling the river, take some time with the mosses too. They might be easier to identify! But don’t think that they are simple or boring because they are small. Gathering Moss opens another way into the vast and complex world of, truly, most of the life around us. Check it out from the library this winter. As with finding lichens, winter can be a good time to find beautiful mosses, especially when we have some milder days. The cool temperatures and moisture from melting snow make conditions that lichen and moss love. They are hydrated and show off form and colors very dramatically.
When out walking, observe the base of trees, rocky areas and sometimes soil also. The Kickapoo Valley Reserve and nearby forests have many moss species. As with observing lichens, a small hand lens is invaluable for seeing the tiny features that are hard to notice otherwise.
Below is a painting I just finished, of lichen and moss on a river cliff near Bridge 8. The lichen really are that turquoise color, under certain conditions.
Let’s go out in the woods, and make friends with the mosses as well as the lichens. See you out there!
Wildfire effects on lichens have recently been coming to the attention of biologists and foresters who are studying the long term effects of the very hot fires that have become more common in the North American west. The forests developed over thousands of years to withstand and benefit from low intensity, frequent fires. We humans suppressed the fires for over 100 years, and now the increasing but historically normal dry conditions and build up of unburned woody material in the forests, as well as the vast number of beetle-killed trees create conditions that encourage fires to start and burn hotter than normal.
These super hot fires burn the forest more completely, killing all the lichens. Many years later there are no signs of lichens in the burned areas. Scientists suspect the lichens will not return until the forests grow large, older trees that provide habitat for lichens. The lack of lichens in a new forest will affect the health of the trees, and the ability of many animals and insects and birds to live in a burned over area. Many species depend on lichens for some aspect of their lives; without lichens, these residents disappear.
When we see the diversity and quantity of lichens in an established forest, it becomes clear they are an important part of the community. After a fire, and also after human logging activity forests do regrow, but we are only starting to understand some of the ways each member of the forest plays an essential role in making a resilient, vibrant, and sustainable environment that all life can depend on. We are starting to realize that some trees and other plants growing after a fire are only a small part of the life that needs to become established and begin cooperating to make a real forest. Maybe in the future we will change our management habits to not suppress natural processes, and when we do interfere, we will use more comprehensive methods to renew the forest, such as inoculate with lichen spores as we plant trees, consider helping other plants grow, and diversify the species we plant. We’ll also need to choose trees, forbes, lichens and maybe even soil microbes that fit the environment being addressed.
We’ll need to think about the combinations and timing of introducing species. Just sticking some pine trees into the ground is not in any sense ‘reforestation’. (I planted trees for paper companies for years and was rudely awakened by what passed for ‘reforestation’.)
While we contemplate these ideas, we also have to learn at what stage of a forest’s growth each member of the community enters and establishes itself. We know in general, but I am sure we have a lot to learn. We know lichens are one of the first to colonize new earth, then moss, liverworts, ferns and on to larger plants. Each species, each facet of rock, wood or soil has special properties; they combine and change in minute but critical ways, in an elaborate dance with each other.
Maybe one of the good things to come out of the tragic fires in the western forests will be a desire to regrow forests that are resilient and adaptable as well as useful for our timber needs.
NOTE: Identification of lichens in these photos is tentative. If anyone reading this site has a suggestion for a more accurate identification, please contact me. Thanks!