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.)
Veering off topic from Lichens to Mushrooms today; I just can’t help myself because the story is so wonderful. A human has written music from mushrooms. Not one song, but thousands, from every mushroom he encountered over decades of walking in the forest.
Recently a friend gave me information about the discovery that lichens disable prions, particularly the ones that make CWD. In the last post, I mused about what else they might be up to that we have no ideas about yet. As elders and others from cultures with intact connections to the living world know and occasionally inform us, everything is alive and interacts in myriad ways with the world. Some people still know that, and sometimes they make something beautiful from their love of the world’s beauty. And sometimes, a human interacts with the living world in a new and beautiful way. That’s the story of Vaclav Halek.
Today, while listening to the radio program ‘To The Best Of Our Knowledge’ the story of Vaclav Halek’s willingness to listen to what he heard years ago, and his inspiration to add his own gifts to the mushrooms’ songs so other humans could also hear them sing, brought to mind all the discoveries made about mycelium, lichens, fungi, and other Tiny Ones, such as bacteria. So few humans notice the Tiny Ones, the Small Ones, the Stemmed Ones….all those who are quiet and small and everywhere. Sometimes we “hear symphonies” when in the presence of a grand landscape, or spectacular sky. But Mr. Halek’s symphony came from….mushrooms.
While wandering in the forest in the 1980’s, he first heard music coming from a mushroom. He seemed to have no hesitation in hurrying to write down what he heard. That response started a long relationship with thousands of mushrooms, all of them giving him their own unique music. Melodies, symphonies and many other pieces of music have been created over the years.
Here is the story about Mr. Halek:
John Cage was a mycologist as well as a musician, and used mushroom names in his works. He also commented that he could hear mushrooms. So Mr. Halek isn’t the only person to be aware of Mushroom’s voice.
Here is the last stanza from his poem ‘Mushrooms’:
they’ll be separated froM the rest of creation
and pUt in a kingdom
all of tHis is an attempt
Our understanding of these plants, which perhaps
are not plants at all. so far they’ve
Managed to remain
juSt as mysterious as they ever were.
It’s easy to find a label…’synaesthesia’ and dismiss this man’s work as a harmless pathology. I invite you to consider if there are other possibilities that hold potential, or simply cause happiness, for what he is doing.
If any of us go outside our walls, away from our electronics, and become quiet and slow and wait for a while, anyone may hear or see new and wonderful ways the world is alive, and maybe even singing to us, and maybe even has something to say or offer that is worth the effort to listen.
How do you see, or hear, or smell the world? What places or beings could you discover by bringing your special awareness to a part of the world so far unnoticed? Maybe simply being in the presence of a sunset, or a mushroom, or an animal inspires your own creative expression of beauty, and maybe what is around you will also contribute in some way to that creative process. There are so many reasons to go out wandering in the fields and woods, but this is one of the most unique. If you hear a mushroom (or maybe even a lichen), let us know. And if you’re inspired by whatever you find or meet in your wanderings, please share your story.
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.
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.
It’s raining tonight (February 23rd) and quite unpleasant outside. Today I retrieved from a drawer the lichen samples I collected last summer in Canada, with the intention of finally identifying the species. While traveling I discovered that the plastic clam boxes that fruit is sold in make great traveling sample containers for all sorts of delicate pieces of lichen as well as shells, bark, fallen birds’ eggs and dead bugs. I like to bring home all those things, look at them for a while then return them to the woods and fields to keep their place in the cycle of life.
Often, in many places, the only way berries and other small produce is sold is in plastic clamshell boxes, so I ended up with a few of them during our travels. I don’t buy food in plastic containers, but made a temporary exception during a few days of the trip. The paper envelopes usually used to hold lichen samples work the best, and they too can rejoin the circle of life when we are done using them. So now I’m sorting out the lichens from their plastic cages, and enjoying the memories of finding them during the summer’s travels.
The Peltigera in British Columbia can also be found here in Wisconsin. When walking the KVR Wintergreen Bluff Trail stop at Lichen Site 4 (the rocky flat area) and look carefully for this species. There is quite a large area of them. Please stay on the trail while looking, so you don’t crush the Tiny Ones! At different times and weathers, these lichens will change dramatically, from being almost invisible to looking like they do in this picture.
Here’s what the bench land looks like above the Columbia River in southeast British Columbia. This is a Nature Conservancy area so has been protected from excessive damage. Much of the bench lands are built on, and the lichens are few in those places.
Walking the trails here, this is what the ground looks like:
While walking, and especially biking through here, looking out at the scenery or the next obstacle to maneuver around, the life on the ground is something no one notices. Yet this microbiome is holding all the larger life in place, creating and protecting an environment, shelter, food supply system, promoting health, preventing erosion and more. As it disappears when we travel over it or dig it up, the diversity and therefore the sustainability of the whole area fails.
When we step on the ground here, it sounds a bit crunchy, and it is; the dry lichens break off and the delicate crust on the surface of the ground is broken open. All dry, open soils naturally have some microbiome crust, unless disturbed. This allows dry grasslands and even deserts to support a tremendous variety and number of living beings, from plants to insects, birds, mammals, reptiles and even humans.
These dry grassy areas in the western areas of our continent should be covered in some form of this microbiome. When visiting these areas, go slowly and look at what is on the soil and rocks, then step carefully. There is a miniature world at your feet as complex as the world of trees, grass and animals we are familiar with.
Leaving the dry grasslands and moving into the more tree covered slopes of the lower mountain elevations, there continues to be much life on the soil and rocks, but the trees also support a vast community of lichens. From deep rainforest communities to dry open pine forest, lichens love it here.
The colors and shapes rival any garden. Each time a new rock is found, the lichen shapes and colors are different. Trees are festooned with bright yellow, pale yellow and greens of Usnea and Vulpicida as well as the grays and greens and blacks of Letharia, Hypogemnias and more.
Yes, I do get those seed catalogs, and can get lost dreaming in them on winter days, but an excellent variation of that pastime is looking at lichen pictures. If there are not enough pictures here for you, try the best lichen picture site ever -Stephen Sharnoff’s amazing website. Add some color and amazement to your gray winter days by sharing this lichen blog and Sharnoff’s site too, with others, especially kids!
Contact us at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve if you want help learning about lichens. Come out and walk the Lichen Trail. Even in winter you’ll find some color and intrigue in Lichen Land. Thanks for reading this blog. Please share with others, to spread the news about our friends in Lichen Land.
It’s hard to stop at just one poem. Now I’m looking for quotes about lichens, and more poetry too. So here is another lichen poem, by a trained biologist. This one goes deep into Lichen’s personal life. You might enjoy having a glossary of lichen terms nearby to get the most out of her verse, but even without that, I hope you are amused. She gives a fairly good synopsis of lichen life. Memorize the poem (why not?) and amaze your friends.
Lichen Poem by Caryl Sue (National Geographic/BioBlitz)
Their love can be a bit crustose
with areoles in bloom;
Their love can produce thread-like string,
called hyphae, when they plume.
Their love has colonized the Earth
from deserts to the ice;
These extremophiles exist
on sand, on trees, on gneiss.
Who could these star-crossed lovers be?
Why are they symbiotes?
They reproduce asexually
unlike us mammal folk.
A fungus, a mycobiont,
is one part of the pair-
It often lives all on its own:
itself, dead things, and air.
The other love, photobiont
can turn light into food;
The trick is photosynthesis
a skill that’s pretty shrewd.
Photobionts can be algae,
Some lucky fungi can have both
at once, and that’s a fact.
A pair now caught between two worlds
not fungi, not algae
A composite organism
of one, or two, or three.
United now, this smart couple
sets out to reproduce;
Small spores or fragments of themselves
are set on winds, diffuse.
Some reproduce by using spores,
sped off to parts unknown.
These fungi that do not find mates
are doomed to die alone.
are reproductive packs
In orange, or green, or yellow hues,
or purple, white, or black.
O foliose! O fruticose!
O squamulose, and more!
The fungi and the algae have
so many types in store.
Animals use them for their nests—
hummingbirds and turkey;
They’re almost all that reindeer eat
in the winter, murky.
People eat them as “famine food”,
They’re not a tasty treat.
They’re used in herbal remedies-
in dyes, and perfumes sweet.
So, once upon a time ago,
fungi, algae convince—
They fell in love, and they have been
lichen it ever since.