(from the archives: This article was originally posted in July, 2008 on an iWeb blog called Germtales. Germtales went into cyber-hybernation. iWeb gave up the ghost… - j.a.g.)
It was bound to happen. The only wonder was it hadn’t happened sooner. Someone finally sat me down in front of a microscope and said, “Look!”
It was a “British Soldier” (Cladonia cristatella), a wee little thing, like the lichen in the photo above, with a bright red “fruiting body” cap. Aided by the unabashedly nosy lens of a dissecting microscope, I could see into all its folds. I could study the texture of its improbably lurid top, which “real size” was smaller than the head of a pin. Armed with a thin probe—the club from hell under magnification, especially with my clumsy touch—I could peer into all its secrets. The next few hours were lost in Lilliputian delight.
While lichenologist Rich Hyerczyk… No, that doesn’t do him justice. While Rich Hyerczyk, a lichen connoisseur and teacher of the “Lichens All Around Us!” class at the Chicago Botanic Garden, patiently took us through the basics of key guide identification, I happily oohed and ahhed, content for the time being simply to see these things exist.
Foliose. Crustose. Fruticose. The general shape-based classifications were fairly straightforward (looks leafy, looks crusty, looks shrubby). After that, it was alien territory: new words for previously unimagined things.
Soredia. Thallus. Xanthomendoza. Physcia. Candellaria. Squamule. Apothecia. Podetia. I was a stranger in a strange land and pretty darn happy about it.
One of my favorite parts of travel is taking a walk alone as soon as I arrive somewhere new—before anyone has a chance to tell me where I am.
Within minutes of stashing bags at a hotel in Bologna, I am exploring the side streets off the main square, finding book stores (five in 30 minutes, including the magnificent Biblioteca Salaboursa—where I could have lived happily ever after), gelato shops, bakeries, one notably saucy fountain, a few tucked-away churches and some fabulous street theater.
In Havana (scouting a segment on the Old Havana neighborhood for a sadly never-produced National Geographic series on the “World’s Most Endangered Places”), I walk along El Malecon to see the sea. A honk from at least a block away jolts me from my shimmery thoughts: The driver of a 1950-something Buick with question-mark brakes warns me to safety.
Traveling to the land of lichens has been every micron as interesting and unexpected. Like many good journeys, this one began with a wrong turn and a touch of serendipity.
This past spring, groves of miniature and somewhat Seussian palm trees took over an old strawberry pot I use for moss roses. I put off planting for weeks, so adorable where their charms. Thinking they were lichens and wanting to know more, I signed up for the class.
Alas, my erstwhile lichen turned out to be liverwort—Marchantia polymorpha—but no matter. I was hooked on these strange little lichen plants and completely enthralled by their symbiotic society of fungi, algae and, every once in a while, cyanobacteria (microbes with a talent for photosynthesis).
A lichen doesn’t have parents so much as partners. An estimated 13,500 species of fungi seek out just a handful of algal species (and cyanobacteria) to capture and nurture in order to harvest the sugars they produce. In turn, the algae, now protected by fungal armor, are given the opportunity to travel, colonize and conquer the world. These odd-couples can make a go of it just about anywhere. There are lichens on rocks in the Arctic that live for hundreds and even thousands of years. In fact, crustose lichens—the ones that grow on rocks—are literally one with their rocks. The line between inorganic and organic is breathtakingly modest.
If you split a lichen’s fungus and algae apart, the fungus will die while the algae survives —provided there is enough water and conditions are right. It is basically the same story, writ larger, with humans and our commensal, “beneficial” microbes. Lose the gut bugs that help with digestion, produce Vitamin K, and, by their very presence, keep “bad” microbes at bay, and we’re toast. Microbes on skin, teeth, in vaginas and other surprising places play equally key roles. (Women on antibiotics are more vulnerable to yeast infections because the microbes that keep the yeast in check are gone.)
Birds, bees, alligators, cows, snakes and puppies — the animals need the microbes, but the microbes don’t necessarily need the animals.
It gets a little easier to accept the role as the “fungal half” when you start to see Life more as a series of social networks than tooth and claw competitions. Lynn Margolis (whose biology/geology-spanning career is itself as symbiotic as what she studies) and her son, Dorion Sagan, have written several books detailing the Nature’s propensity for partnerships. Symbiosis rules, right down to the cellular level and even into the genome (Symbiotic Planet, Acquiring Genomes).
IN THE FIELD (OR NEARBY…)
Most of the lichens around Chicago are on bark or wood, so we took a short field trip to a patch of forest on the Garden’s grounds. It took a while for the class to get beyond the parking lot. We spent half our time scanning the bark of a particularly lichen-friendly locust with our 10x loupes and magnifying glasses. Everywhere we looked—even on concrete curbs—we found thriving colonies of lichens.
It was a rainy morning, which puffed up the lichens’ algae, making colors more intense. We went through the key: Was a lichen foliose or crustose? (only one fruiticose that day). Was it easy to peel off the substrate surface? Was it greenish or yellow? What color was its underside? Did it have apothecia (cups full of spore-filled sacs) or soredia (fringes of fungal/algal cells ready to blow away and reproduce)? We identified 29 species in 3 hours. We learned that Anisomeridium polypori gives White oak its white bark. We even found a lichen, Phaeocalicium polyporaeum growing wiry black fringe on a “turkey tail” fungus (Trichaptum biforme). In the realm of the alien, this one stood out: Its fruiting body readily apparent, but the exact location of its body body still something of a mystery.
After class, I spent another hour and a half wandering the Garden alone, loupe in hand, kneeling over benches and cement walls, assuring my future as an eccentric. I marveled at “LBM’s” (little brown mushrooms) dotting a lichen-covered linden tree, noted the relative giant-ness of mosses, and followed the intrepid trekking of ants and spiders. The Garden was filled with dozens of species never mentioned on identification plaques. Everywhere I looked there was more. I was Horton. And boy was I hearing a whole bunch of Who’s.
The analogy turned out to be uncomfortably apt. Despite their ability to survive on the most forlorn surfaces in the harshest of climates, and despite their seeming irrepressibility, it turns out some lichens are, in fact, repressible. In the presence of sulphur dioxide and other man-made pollutants, some species pack it in and disappear, making lichens good, easy-to-monitor indicators of environmental health.
But it goes even deeper than that. Dozens of bird species, along with some small mammal species, seek out lichens to line nests and burrows, possibly as a defense against disease and parasites. There are hundreds of active compounds in lichens, some of which are antibiotic. Usnea, for example, is a staple of Chinese and homeopathic remedies. Then there are the reindeer that live on a diet of lichens. Kill the lichens and Santa will have to find alternate transportation.
PATIENCE AND POSSIBILITIES
Back in the lab on the last day of class, we were ready for the 100x microscopes - the ones designed to reveal the daintiest of details. I was given a note card onto which a few chips from a picnic table had been glued back in 1992. I carefully squirted a drop of water onto some unpromising round black bumps I was told were the fruiting bodies of Amadina (nee Buella puntata) and watched as they gelled up enough to tease off with a probe and place onto a microscope slide. Another drop of water, a slide cover and a firm press to break open the fruiting bodies and we were ready for a look-see. Amazingly, stunningly, gobsmacking miraculously there they were: 8 translucent spore sacs to a bunch, just as advertised.
My bench-mate managed to find an actual individual spore. It was perfect. Who knows whether it was viable, but it might have been. Sturdy cell walls. Distinct cell markings where they were supposed to be. Life goes on.
As I drove home that night with the windows rolled down, listening to cicadas and glancing at summer-sky stars, it seemed a given that life would be everywhere throughout the universe. Life on Mars? Lichens on Mars? I wouldn’t bet against them.
—J. A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews
Photo credit for Suessian Liverwort and the Lichen on Tree: J.A. Ginsburg / CC BY-NC-ND