Among the many local events forfeited during the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” weeks was an annual event unique to the Coconino Nation Forest Red Rock Ranger District (RRRD). Since 2016, the first two weeks of May have been designated as Lichen Appreciation Week at the District’s Visitor Center. Although the Visitor Center has remained closed through at least June and a lichen interpretive display is not planned this year, these busy and diverse organisms are not going unappreciated on the National Forest.
Lichens – that scaly or fuzzy stuff we see growing on rocks, trees or soil – are a symbiotic organism composed of a fungus and an algae or cyanobacterium (in the past called blue-green algae) or both. The algae and cyanobacterium provide carbohydrates through photosynthesis to the fungus and the fungus in turn captures moisture and provides mineral nutrients and protection from too much light to the algae/cyanobacterium.
A US Forest Service project to document and identify the lichens inhabiting the Red Rock District began in 2015. Friends of the Forest member Garry Neil, a lichen hobbyist turned citizen scientist, volunteered for the task under the guidance of RRRD Wildlife Biologist Janie Agyagos. The Forest Service is interested to contribute to the study of lichens in the Southwest, and there is special interest to learn whether there are rare or threatened lichen species in our area.
Neil’s academic background in lichen physiology and ecology was a perfect fit for the study. Working largely alone, since 2015 he has collected more than 525 lichen specimens and identified 217 species, including 66 species not previously recorded in the District. His search extends to remote areas, sometimes far from trail systems. His gear most importantly includes a botanists’ hand lens since some lichens are as small as one tenth of a millimeter. Other gear includes chisels, knives, hammers and of course a National Forest Collector’s Permit.
Locations of interest for lichen collection include a wide distribution of elevations, microclimates and substrate or underlying surface. Lichens can be found on bark, a variety of types of rock, moss, soil and even living and growing parasitically on other lichens. The biological soil crust that hikers are urged not to “bust” contains lichens as well free-living fungi, mosses, liverworts, bacteria and free-living algae. As many as eight to ten lichen species can be found within one square foot. Lichen species vary with different degrees of shade, general sun orientation, moisture and stubstrate.
As Neil locates a specimen, he records GPS coordinates and the details of the location: type of strata, adjacent vegetation and habitat, overstory, and orientation to the sun. All lichens collected are also photo documented. The specimen is carefully harvested with a sample of the substrate along with other lichens that might be living at the same location. Search and collecting are just the beginning of the fun.
Once collected, the specimens are taken to a lab that Neil has set up in his garage. There the samples are studied in detail to determine their specific genus and species identity. Minute sections of lichen are studied under magnification, sometimes enhanced with chemical solutions, and compared to detailed reference keys. Drawers of lichen specimens await this detailed process.
On behalf of the RRRD, Neil also collaborates with Arizona State University Lichenologist Dr. Frank Bungartz, curator of the ASU lichen herbarium, for more sophisticated identification of samples that are difficult to determine. As the fourth largest herbarium in the United States, many of the 20,000 lichens identified globally are available to Neil for direct comparison.
Perhaps most exciting for the RRRD lichen study has been the recent discovery of what may prove to be an entirely new lichen species – found not more than 100 yards from Neil’s home bordering the National Forest. “It looked like a small black dot on a sandstone rock, something most people would not even notice,” said Neil.
But why all the fuss about lichens? Neil has an answer for that. “First and foremost, lichens – which are among the oldest land inhabitants on the planet – are an excellent indicator of the quality of life where they live and grow. They have been used for years as biological indicators of air pollution as well as other harmful substances. Some species are used in pharmaceuticals as well as in cosmetics. Indigenous cultures have used them for decades as a source of dyes. Some animals have used lichens as a food source, in nest building and countless other ways.”
As we continue to practice social distancing, observing the abundance of lichens in our surroundings is an interesting way to enhance a hike or neighborhood stroll.