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"Lichens are fungi that have discovered agriculture"— lichenologist Trevor Goward.
Unless you live in and never leave an area with heavy air pollution, you have undoubtedly come across lichens at some point in your life. While they are not plants at all, their association with plants and their ability to photosynthesize are good enough for me to write about them here.
On top of everything else, lichens are downright fascinating organisms. Lichens are formed by the symbiosis of 2 or even 3 kingdoms of life. The main “body” of the lichen is formed by fungi. The fungi live symbiotically with algae or cyanobacteria from the kingdoms Protista and Monera respectively. Some lichens, like Lobaria pulmonaria, will actually contain both algae and cyanobacteria. Lichens can be found growing in and on a variety of places. From trees to stones and even on soil itself, lichen habitats are about as diverse as they come. They can be found in some of the harshest environments on Earth! Since fungi cannot produce food on their own, they usually take up the role of decomposers in any given environment. Lichens do that but more. By partnering with algae and cyanobacteria, lichen can gain extra nutrients like sugars and nitrogen.
Reproduction in lichens can vary. Some form structures that contain all the partners needed. These simply break off and blow away to form a new lichen. Others don’t have it as easy. Some species begin their life as fungal spores which need to find a suitable habitat to live and the correct photosynthetic partner to join up with. Most spores perish but a small minority make it and, judging by their success, that seems to be all that is needed.
As hardy as lichens may seem, their biggest weakness is pollution. In areas of high pollution, lichens are almost entirely absent (way to go, humans). Our relationship with lichens isn’t all bad though. Since lichens can’t move and also because they are partially fungal, they have evolved a multitude of different chemicals and pigments for both defense and obtaining food. This makes them particularly interesting to our species as some are highly sought after for medicine and food. We aren’t alone either. Reindeer lichen gets it’s name from being a staple food for reindeer. Also, though not as obvious, lichens can even help stabilize our soil. In many places of the world, lichens form a crust over the ground which absorbs rain and can stave off runoff. However, these species are highly fragile and the slightest foot traffic destroys them. To add insult to injury, these species take centuries to reestablish themselves.
I could go on forever. Heck, I could have a whole page devoted to just lichens. I’m not going to do that, but I hope this brief introduction at least gets you thinking about them. Get outside and check them out. They can be unbelievably beautiful and their varied shapes and forms makes each one unique. If you find a neat looking lichen, please share a picture here! Also, make sure to check out the amazing time lapse video link below to see how lichens respond to water.
Photo Credit: ekrayson, Jim McCulloch, BooBookl48
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