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What's Not to Lichen? Little Known, Little Understood?

By Bill Willis

April 25, 2017

Lichens decorate this Cyprus tree at the ball field.
Lichens decorate this Cyprus tree at the ball field. (Photo courtesy of Bill Willis)

Some species have no trouble working together on a common goal to achieve what neither one could do alone to make their environment a better place. Lichens are such an association that can be found all over, including right on campus, with two separate groups coming together to form a viable organism that otherwise would not exist. Although primitive, minute, and slow growing, lichens play important roles as shapers of what evolves within a given ecological niche.

What are lichens?

Lichens are not vascular plants or even a single organism, but are a partnership between a fungus and one or more algaeor cyanobacteria. The main body structure of the lichen consists of fungal filaments that surround the cells of its photosynthesizing companion, the algae. Besides providing a physical way to anchor the lichen to a surface, the fungus provides shelter and moisture for the algae. In exchange, the fungi is nourished by carbohydrates produced by the algae converting carbon dioxide and nitrogen from the air into organic compounds.

Where are lichens found?

They can be found in most places on earth from the tundra to hot springs. They will colonize bare rock, cleared soil, animal bones, metal, or living bark.

How do lichens differ from plants?

They do not have roots, stems or leaves. The photosynthetic machinery is encased within the fungal structure. Lichens are not parasitic so no nutrient uptake can come from their host.

Why are lichens important?

The small but delicious lichens are a food source for artic grazing animals. They are also pioneer organisms in the breakdown of inorganic matter. They are sensitive to pollution as well as acidic conditions, making them strong environmental monitors. They are known to produce more than 500 biochemical compounds.

Several lichen growth forms can live side by side on the same object. Over 1000 fungi and algal associations have been recognized in North Carolina. They are not parasitic but rather use the tree as a staging area.
Several lichen growth forms can live side by side on the same object. Over 1000 fungi and algal associations have been recognized in North Carolina. They are not parasitic but rather use the tree as a staging area. (Photo courtesy of Bill Willis)
Even the small limbs are adorned with fruticose lichens.
Even the small limbs are adorned with fruticose lichens. (Photo courtesy of Bill Willis)
Lichen needs solid attachments to bond to, such as the railing of Bridge #1 on campus.
Lichen needs solid attachments to bond to, such as the railing of Bridge #1 on campus. (Photo courtesy of Bill Willis)

A fallen oak branch covered with lichens. Lichen will also attach to living trees.
A fallen oak branch covered with lichens. Lichen will also attach to living trees. (Photo courtesy of Bill Willis)
Lichens add a touch of beauty to bluebird houses. Lichen is also used for nest building by Humming birds and chickadees.
Lichens add a touch of beauty to bluebird houses. Lichen is also used for nest building by Humming birds and chickadees. (Photo courtesy of Bill Willis)
In the North Employee Parking Lot, a small ecosystem is developing on the side of a Cyprus tree, where mosses have already joined the lichen.
In the North Employee Parking Lot, a small ecosystem is developing on the side of a Cyprus tree, where mosses have already joined the lichen. (Photo courtesy of Bill Willis)
Lichen is leading this rock to breakdown.
Lichen is leading this rock to breakdown. (Photo courtesy of Bill Willis)
Despite the name, this reindeer moss is considered a lichen. Here it rests on a bed of moss on campus.
Despite the name, this reindeer moss is considered a lichen. Here it rests on a bed of moss on campus. (Photo courtesy of Bill Willis)
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