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!
The past several months watching Kilauea’s changes as she wakes up has been fascinating. I have friends who have a home in this area, so there is a personal interest in what is happening there. As we adjust to the losses and changes for the humans, we are also respectful of Pele’s part in creating the lovely land we know as Hawaii. She knows what she is doing, and over time the foundation she lays for all other life will again support the abundance we are familiar with. After Pele cools off, what happens? For an entertaining account of the volcanic process, read Krakatoa by Simon Winchester
As the lava cools, the new earth is immediately colonized by bacteria that comes floating in on air currents. Also carried by the air are tiny seeds, bits of soil from other places, and…….lichens! Lichens are the first life to colonize the new earth, beginning to add organic matter to the surface as they grow and die, and they also begin their work of moderating the surface temperature and moisture content. They provide shelter for the first insects, who also blow in on the wind, or crawl from adjacent areas. Then the birds and lizards come to eat the insects and lichens, and then the tiny mammals, snakes, and gradually the forest reappears.
Mt. St. Helens in Oregon, has changed dramatically after the eruption 35 years ago. This mountain was covered more in ash than lava, so many of the plants reappeared from under the ash; life did not have to restart from the tiniest bacteria and lichen spores.
Where there is any live topsoil nearby an area such as an industrial site or monocultured agriculture land, where no life has been for some time, the lichens are not always the first to live in those barren places. Seeds already are present, if not in the exposed earth they are nearby, and easily move into a barren area. But the lichens do appear on soil very soon, and when any trees have been growing for a few years, the lichens begin to appear.
The Hawaiian volcano process is a rapid “movie” of how life begins on new earth. Variations of that process occur everywhere, but are less easily observed. Check on science websites or local Hawaiian park sites or private blogs, USGS info, for news on how the land and life changes on the newly formed land.
Happy Lichen hunting!
It’s summer! We are in the season of Frog Walks, night time Bat Surveys, Birding Events, star gazing nights and more. The extravagant displays of color and sound, the always changing feast for the eyes is at it’s best in the Kickapoo Valley Reserve.
Many of us review our familiarity with birds and plants we consider old friends, as they reappear each spring and summer. What have you learned recently, that is completely new, about the ecosystem you are part of? Now that you know at least some of the birds, flowers, trees, bats, mammals and even fungi and insects, what else could be here?
Learning about lichens and their relatives in the fungi world is a good place to start because most of us have not thought much about these neighbors. An essential part of the natural world as we know it is made up of fungi and LICHENS. Lichens influence and in some ways may control the environment. Lichens are everywhere- rock, tree surfaces, and on the ground. Lichens are at least as diverse as any other group of organisms. Lichens are present every day of the year. Lichens may be enjoyed as you canoe down the river, walk on a trail, or sit under a tree watching birds. Lichens are colorful, beautiful, endlessly varied and so easy to get close to.
Take some time to read this website’s information, look at the lichen books at the KVR while you relax in the Visitor Center, and go for a lichen hike with a friend, or give me a call and we’ll go visit Lichen Land to see who’s there this time of year.
Join the KVR Lichen Project this year. Learn about lichens; the world of nature that you think you know will expand dramatically. Becoming familiar with lichens opens a doorway to the ‘web of life’ that all are part of. We mostly see individual parts; the bird, the tree, the river….but none of those are what they are without all the others they relate to aand interact with. Lichens are quintessential collaborators, cooperators, adaptors. Many of the other residents you are familiar with are dependent on lichens to some degree. What can we learn about those relationships?
While the lichens moderates the climate for the tree it lives on, the tree moderates the climate for the earth under it and all that live there, and moderates the air space it occupies, affecting all the air interacts with, on so on the web spreads. How many more relationships like this surround us? What happens when those interactive webs are changed or destroyed? What can we do to steward the health and survival of webs of life we do not understand well? How can we learn to see these connections better, to foster our understanding of what is going on around us?
Learning about lichens and becoming familiar with them as part of the beautiful world you interact with on your hikes and other activities in the green world is one way to enlarge your perspective and through that, your effectiveness in caring for both the KVR and the larger green world around us.
Lichens are a bit harder to find in the depths of summer greenery. Look on exposed rocks especially along the river. Lichens as well as mosses and liverworts abound on river cliffs. The lower parts of tree trunks are always easy to observe and have many lichen species growing on them. Notice the different lichens on different tree species. There are also some lichen species that seem to grow on many tree species. What could be the reason some grow almost everywhere and others are very particular about their location?
Wet weather wakes up lichens. Their colors are bright and they are actively photosynthesizing and reproducing. Take a picture, and compare it with the same lichen at another time of year, when conditions are dry. The lichen may be almost unrecognizable as the same one you saw on a wet day.
Enjoy the lichens wherever you find them this summer. Post a message here if you see any lichens you’d like to share!
After the past two weeks of snow, ice, ice, rain, ice, rain……and then a lot of snow, the ice formations on the rocks along County P were especially large and beautiful. This is the rock face on the south side of Cty P, under a wall of icicles. The sun is out and in a day the ice will be gone and the lichens and their associates will carry on photosynthesizing and adjusting their environment chemically and physically and maybe in ways we can’t yet imagine. Even now they are not totally dormant, as it is not extremely cold.
Next week I’ll post a quick review of this site and at least one other one, as I begin checking on how each location is changing, who is living there or active now and simply to record the beautiful colors and shapes.
This year I will try to improve my skills using the Celestron microscope in the field, to get better images of very close up details without having to remove so much sample material from the lichen bodies. Can we improve on the standard scientific observation and measurement procedures? I think so! They are valuable, and yet almost always entail the death of whatever we want to look at, or at least inflicting damage. We endure those procedures on ourselves for our medical treatments, but do draw the line at severe maiming or killing to get a test result. That criteria could be applied to our interactions for ‘test results’ from other living beings too. Who knows how much we could learn by changing the way we observe?
One of the reasons this interests me is that the more we re-learn about whatever or whoever we are studying, the more we realize we haven’t hardly a clue about what they know or do or how they all interact together. By de-emphasizing the mechanistic, objective perspectives just a bit, and re-orienting toward slowing down, staying present, observing over time and from new and different perspectives, a world alive with possibilities we have ignored may open to us. Who knows what will happen then? Exploring these ideas does not take away from useful information and techniques for getting it that we use now. But there is plenty of that being done, and I believe, too little listening and watching. So as well as trying to get the taxonomy as correct as possible, and taking some samples when needed, I’m going to share the Lichen’s place in the world with you in as many other ways as come to mind, as we wander the trails and hillsides of the KVR and beyond.
Check in once in a while this year, for adventures with the Tiny Ones.
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.
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.
On the rocks by the roadway, there are only limited species of crustose and if you look carefully you may find some small foliose.
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.
The KVR has the first ever Drive-By Lichen Viewing Site! Yes, you now can see lichens without even getting out of your car. I do not recommend this, but if it’s raining, it’s ok to roll down the windows and take a quick look, then come back later and walk around.
The official name of this site is “Cut Off and County P” lichen site. It is located east of Highway 131 and Bridge 10, on County P at the intersection of Cut Off Road. There are no markers at this site, as it is on the road right of way, but it is easy to get to and hard to miss. Once you are here, please do get out and walk around. Check the details of this site and the lichens living here by going to the Lichen Site tab on the main page.
There are several special aspects to this site. The first is the easy access. There are numerous places to search for lichens in the immediate area as well as right on the roadside cliffs.
Secondly, the cliffs on each side of the road are directly exposed to the chemicals and poisons expelled in our car exhaust as we drive through the narrow channel made by the rock walls. This may be the site most affected by air pollution on the reserve. Another interesting aspect of this site is that one cliff faces north and one faces south. The north facing cliff gets almost no direct sunlight, and is black in color.
The south facing cliff is in full sun all year long and shows the usual brown colors of sandstone. Each surface has a different mix of plants, lichens, and fungi. Throughout the year the populations of each change in size, color and quantity.
Most of the lichens at this site are crustose type, but there are also several foliose species here. If you search the nearby trees and some of the cliffs farther back in the forest, you may find some fruticose lichens too. Usually fruticose lichens are more sensitive to air pollution so if you find any of that type of lichen at this roadside site, please let us know, and take a picture of it for our records.
How many different crustose lichen can you see on each cliff face? What lichens are only on one cliff face and not the other cliff? This is an easy site to visit periodically. When you come back, are there different colors on the rocks? Can you find more lichens or less, than the last time you looked? Send your observations to the Lichen Project, and be part of Citizen Science explorations!
Thanks for visiting the KVR Lichen Project. Come visit us in Lichen Land!
Beatrix Potter, Mycologist: The Beloved Children’s Book Author’s Little-Known Scientific Studies and Illustrations of Mushrooms
By her early twenties, Potter had developed a keen interest in mycology and began producing incredibly beautiful drawings of fungi, collecting mushroom specimens herself and mounting them for careful observation under the microscope. In the winter months, she frequented London’s Natural History Museum to study their displays. Linda Lear, author of Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature writes:
“Beatrix’s interest in drawing and painting mushrooms, or fungi, began as a passion for painting beautiful specimens wherever she found them. She never saw art and science as mutually exclusive activities, but recorded what she saw in nature primarily to evoke an aesthetic response. She was drawn to fungi first by their ephemeral fairy qualities and then by the variety of their shape and colour and the challenge they posed to watercolour techniques. Unlike insects or shells or even fossils, fungi also guaranteed an autumn foray into fields and forests, where she could go in her pony cart without being encumbered by family or heavy equipment.”
There is also something quite poetic about Potter’s obsession with fungi — in her later children’s books, she bridged real life and fantasy by transmuting the animals and plants she observed in nature into whimsical characters and stories, and mushrooms have long symbolized this very transmutation, perhaps most prominently in Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, which first captured the popular imagination the year Potter was born.
But her interest went far beyond the mere aesthetics or symbolism of mushrooms — she was studious about their taxonomy, taught herself the proper technique for accurate botanical illustration, and worked tirelessly to get an introduction to the eminent mycologist Charles McIntosh. With his help and encouragement, she continued advancing her microscopic observations, which kindled in her an intense fascination with how mushrooms reproduced — something poorly understood at the time. Potter soon began conducting her own experiments with spores she had germinated herself. She was particularly captivated by lichens, considered at the time the “poor peasants of the plant world,” in the words of the great botanist Linnaeus — a statement itself belying the dearth of scientific understanding at the time, for lichens are not plants but a hybrid of fungi and algae. more