The Mysterious Lichen Universe

Blog 37: Last winter was warm with hardly any snowstorms in our region. The pandemic restrictions gave me a lot of time on my hands so I went out more often. I checked on all the perennial polypore mushrooms I regularly photograph and as they change very little in the winter I found myself searching for colour against the snowy landscape. One day as I was enjoying the vibrant colours of several different Lichens on trees I detected something pink nestled on a Lichen. It wasn't just pink but NEON pink. I pulled out my magnifying glass to get a better look and It looked like chewed double bubble gum. Seriously, that is what it looked like to this baby boomer. Then suddenly, I started seeing it on other Lichens. Due to its striking colour it wasn’t hard to find through research that this tiny pink dot was a parasitic fungus living off that Lichen. With my magnifying glass in hand I started to view this parasite fungal to see which lichen it was attached to and discovered how uniquely beautiful and vibrant lichens are close up. A mini ecosystem indeed like no other. I have always known some lichens to be part of the medicinal plant community but boy was I wrong. Lichens are not plants!

Through research this winter of the variety of Lichens I have photographed I agree they are truly fascinating mysterious 'things'. Scientists describe Lichens by their symbiotic partners but little is known about the Lichen as a whole organism. National Geographic Society notes that the word 'symbiosis' was actually invented to describe lichens 150 years ago. At that time we believed it was solely two partners: a fungus and a seaweed. A very radical concept at the time! To date we now know a Lichen consists of multiple symbiotic partners: there can be two or more fungi, the algae and sometimes a cyanobacteria (formerly known as blue- green algae). Scientists have recently discovered a new partner and that partner is yeast. I'm sure in the future they will discover more partners in the mini-universe of a Lichen.

So, do Lichens belong to the Flora Kingdom or the Fungi Kingdom? Or should they be in a kingdom entirely on their own? That is the question. The argument tends more toward the Fungi Kingdom because many of its taxonomic terminology is that of fungi. In fact, the shape and body of the lichen is a fungus ( most are cup fungi ) that houses the algae and/or other partners. The truth is no one knows who is in charge. Is it the fungus or the algae? Did the algae hijack the fungus so it can live on land or did the fungus hijack the algae so it can farm the algae for its food as opposed to hunting for its food?

Lichens are safe organisms that do not damage plants or trees. They are not parasites or pathogens. Only two are known to be poisonous. They just attach and live on the surface of things. They do chew rock and make 'primitive' soil of mineral grains. Therefore they do damage rock statues, sculptures and tombstones. Stephen Bruhner suggests that the fruticose lichen called Usnea (Old Man's Beard) serves as a medicinal for trees which he calls the lungs of the forest. Usnea is found in old growth forests dangling from branches looking like long hair and since we know that it doesn't harm the tree it is interesting to know its use may be more important than we think for trees, the lungs of Earth. We definitely need more Lichenologists to uncover the mysteries of Lichens!

Lichens often have a regular but very slow growth rate of less than a millimeter per year. Think about that. Those tiny things are old! For example, Crustose lichens grow only 1 to 2 mm in diameter per year. Thus if a lichen has a 38mm (1.5 inches) radius it can be anywhere from 19-38 old! Biologists think they grow slowly because they live in harsh environments where water is available for only short periods of time. A neat fact is they are self-sufficient and create their own food which they can store in their bodies for very long periods. This is why they can sustain themselves in very harsh conditions and have become an important food source for many animals.

Lichen cover 7% of the earth's surface and live on every continent. Many have been dated to be 3000-8600 years old but scientists believe they can survive for 10,000 years. There are more than 3600 known species in North America. Lichens are cool because they can grow in harsh and unfavorable habitats where other organisms can’t live like desert and arctic like conditions. Lichens live on rock, trees, buildings and soil! Worldwide, Lichens are used in a multitude of ways. Lichens are used in the perfumes, toothpaste, deodorants, chocolates, to make litmus paper change colour, fabric dyes and pigments, by crafters and model hobbyists, as moth repellents, in tanning, as tinder, in medicine (antibiotics) and used industrially for their chemical compounds. According to Canadian herbalist Robert Rogers, " the great mystery in the chemistry of lichens is their secondary compounds which are not byproducts of normal plant metabolism. Lichens produce over 500 biochemicals that help control UV exposure, repel herbivores, attack microbes and discourage competition." A few lichens have hallucinogenic and narcotic properties. So I bet you are wondering what place do Lichens have in our biodiverse ecosystem? Lichens fix carbon and nitrogen from the atmosphere and are homes to insects, birds and food for animals and peoples in extreme climates.

The most interesting use of lichens is for monitoring air quality and pollution very efficiently and cheaply. According to scientists from the University of California, Berkeley, factory and urban air pollution seriously impacts the growth and health of Lichens. When they extract and view the toxins from a lichen they can know how much of these toxins are in the atmosphere and therefore determine the air quality. Scientists studying the source of high mercury levels in the Inuit communities discovered that the mercury is being carried in the atmosphere as a byproduct of the coal mines from the United States and then carried to the Arctic where lichens absorb it from the air. Caribou dine on these lichens and then Inuit peoples eat the Caribou. A very sad reality that needs to stop!

Next time you hit the hiking trails please view some lichens to appreciate them. If you use a 10x magnifying it will magnify the lichen to 10 times its size. You must hold the lens as close to your eye as you can and view the lichen from 1 inch away of it. The most beautiful time to see them is right after rain when they’ve absorbed all the water and their colours pop. They are also enjoyable to view in the winter when other things in the forest are dormant. Good luck and bring a child. They love to use magnifying glasses. Caution: you may have to drag them out of the woods crying when it's time to go. Promising them you'll come back and do it again may help...


Join our mailing list

Never miss an update