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Weird and Wonderful Lichens

02/22/2016 12:15PM ● Published by Laura Christman

Lichen Love

March 2016

By Laura Christman 

Photo by Ken DeCamp


Algae and fungi don’t have a lot in common. They do, however, share the goal of staying alive. To up their odds, these two organisms from different kingdoms of the living world sometimes join forces and morph into something altogether different: a lichen.

So that’s weird.

Strangeness is a unifying trait of lichens, which are widespread and wildly different in appearance. They can be lacy, leafy, leathery or crusty. Some look like big pancakes; others like blobs of goo, strands of hair or splatters of paint. Hues include bright orange, brilliant red and vivid chartreuse. They grow on rocks, bark, leaves, dirt, pinecones, fences, walls, sidewalks and other places. Northern California is home to many of these bio-buddies.

“I think they are just beautiful to look at,” says Jennifer Gibson, ecologist at Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, where lichens are plentiful. “There may be several different species on one rock.”

California has 1,963 lichen species, according to Tom Carlberg of Arcata, vice president of California Lichen Society and a U.S. Forest Service botanist. Carlberg notes that in addition to the fungus-alga combination, a lichen can be an alliance between a fungus and a cyanobacterium. And, in a few instances, it’s a partnership of all three – fungus, alga and cyanobacterium.

“The fact that this symbiosis exists and there is this interdependency there, that is fascinating to me,” says Carlberg, who leads workshops and walks on lichen.

Individually, the organisms look much different and would struggle to survive. 

Tackling life together makes sense. Unable to produce food through photosynthesis, the fungus lets the alga or cyanobacterium handle that task. In return, the fungus provides moisture and protection – a place to live – for its partner.

“It is a stable symbiosis,” Carlberg says. “The fungus does not deplete the algae, and the algae don’t overtake the fungus. Some individual lichens can live to be decades old, or in extreme cases, for hundreds of years.”

Lichens are important indicators of air quality. Many are sensitive to air pollutants, so the clearer the air, the higher the likelihood of lots of different lichens. Changes in the species of lichen living in an area signal change in air quality – for better or worse. 

“Air quality is a major driver of lichen diversity,” Carlberg says.

Lichens have been used in dyes, deodorants and wound ointments. Some are being studied for their antibacterial properties. Carlberg says much about lichens is still to be learned.

“Lichens have really exotic chemistries,” he says.

In nature, lichens provide nesting material and cover for birds and other small creatures. Some animals, including deer, turkeys, caribou and mountain goats, eat them. Lichens take carbon dioxide from the air and release oxygen. Over time, they break down rock. 

Beautiful, resourceful and useful. With all that going for them, you’d think lichens would be high-profile. But mostly they get overlooked. When they are noticed, they can be mistaken for a moss or parasite.

“Most people haven’t the faintest idea of what a lichen is,” says lichenologist Steve Sheehy of Klamath Falls.

To increase awareness, California Lichen Society successfully pushed for a lichen to be named a state symbol, right in there with the grizzly bear and California poppy. Ramalina menziesii, or lace lichen, became California’s official lichen in January, making California the only state with a designated lichen.

“I think it’s cool,” says Sheehy. “It draws people’s attention that there’s more stuff out there than what they know.”

Sheehy is a volunteer at Lava Beds National Monument, where he’s working on a survey of lichen species. “We’re up to 166 different species. I found one new species – one that’s new to science.”

He was honored with the Park Service’s George and Helen Hartzog volunteer award for his work. A carpet layer for 40 years, Sheehy participated in a lichen bio-blitz survey at Crater Lake National Park and became engrossed in learning more about the tiny organisms.

“They are just fascinating,” he says.

If you take the time to look, lichens are easy to find, he says. “They are everywhere. You can’t throw a rock and not hit a lichen some place.”

The rainy season is the best time to observe lichens, says Ken DeCamp, a Shasta Lake nature photographer working on a book about lichens. With moisture, lichens plump up and many get brighter in color. He’s photographed lichen species throughout the North State – the foothills, mountains and coast.

“You really have to keep your eyes open. Some of them are very small,” DeCamp says. “The closer you get to these things, the more amazing they are.” 


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