The Secret Life of Lichens

Ever since the new Lichens exhibit arrived (on display now from November – April 2017), we’ve all been learning more & more about the fascinating world of lichens. At first it may not sound like it’s a very fascinating topic – but you may be surprised. Here are some quick, fun facts about the secret life of lichens.

 What are lichens?

The word itself translates to “tree moss” from its Greek roots. Unlike its name, lichens do not have roots; in fact, they’re not a plant at all. Lichens are unique organism, made up of fungi combined with algae. One of the most fascinating things about them is that, the fungus and the alga on its own usually look completely different than if they live together as a lichen. Together, they become something new and more as one organism.

...or ARE they??

Just this year has new research emerged on exactly what lichens are made of. A new study has revealed evidence that lichen may actually be composed of not two, but three organisms: fungus, algae and yeast! Is it time to re-write the text books?? Read more about this discovery here

 Do animals or people use lichens for anything?

Yes! Lichens are used & have been used for centuries by people, for things such as colour dyes, medicine, and food. Extracts from lichens are used in toothpastes, deodorants and perfume. Animals from mammals to insects use lichens as habitat, food, and shelter. Hummingbirds and flying squirrels use lichens in and on their nests. Reindeer depend on lichen as a winter food source, and there are several species of moth caterpillars that eat lichen (see photo at bottom).

 Why are lichens special or important?

Despite the fact they’re often overlooked, lichens are extremely important in the ecosystem for lots of reasons:

  • they create soil, often making new habitat for trees and plants to grow
  • they provide habitat for millions of little critters that are vital to a forest’s health, like decomposers (millipedes, beetles, springtails) and microorganisms for soil health
  • they serve as air pollution monitors, and even help to absorb carbon (which can offset greenhouse effects) and metals from the air

Where can I find lichens?
You can find these unique living things pretty much wherever you go! Their diversity and abundance increases you travel north (reindeer “moss” which is a kind of lichen, can literally blanket the ground in the boreal forest). All you have to do is look in your backyard, on buildings, on trees and rocks, and you’ll find lichen. Interestingly, they often benefit from human activities: for example, church cemeteries have provided a growing place for lichens where none used to exist.

What’s the difference between moss & lichen?

 One of the other things in nature you may confuse lichens with is moss. Sometimes the two can look similar at first glance, but if you look closer, moss will look like a tiny plant. They have tiny stems & “leaves”, and are a photosynthesizing, chlorophyll-containing plant. Lichens, as mentioned before, are mostly composed of a fungus combined with one type of algae. In appearance, lichens can look more crust-like, often hard & dry to the touch, and can be a variety of colours (orange, green, yellow, blue-grey). 

sunburst lichen 200x260lichen moth caterpillar 200x260trumpet lichen 200x260
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