By Neil Brown,
Have you seen any blood-spattered beard, fairy puke, or
antlered perfume around Whistler lately? If you have, you are one of the few to
appreciate what are possibly the most overlooked organisms in the terrestrial
Lichen are often described as fungi that have discovered
agriculture. Although classed as fungi, lichens are a symbiotic partnership
between a fungus and an alga. The algae are photosynthesizers, and thus feed the
fungus with protein, carbohydrates, and vitamins. The fungus provides the alga
with water, minerals and protection from the elements.
The magic that results from this relationship is amazing.
Ponder these capabilities. Lichens can remain dormant for long periods, survive
scorching deserts and complete loss of body water, and some can withstand
prolonged exposure to temperatures of -196 degrees C. Their complex chemistry
produces more than 700 identified chemicals, some of which can break down rock
into soil. Lichens can also absorb nitrogen from the air and transmute it into
essential organic growth compounds, which in turn fertilize our local forest
soils with as much as one half of their nitrogen content. Total magic!
Several hundred species of lichen inhabit our surrounding
forests, including the common, light green
, or “witches hair”, which has been garnered by many
a local tree skier for use as artificial dreadlocks when tucked under the edge
of a helmet or toque. Traditional cultures in our area used this same lichen to
decorate dance masks and as bandages, baby diapers, sanitary napkins, bedding
fibre for mattresses, and absorbent fibre for wiping salmon.
Many lichens are now used as bio-indicators. Some species are
the only organisms able to survive in areas of high radioactive contamination.
The sensitivity of some lichens to impure air was first recognized in Europe in
the 1860s. Lichens are now being used as bio-monitoring scales by scientists to
quickly and cheaply assess levels of air toxins.
Local fauna certainly like our lichen. Hummingbirds use them for
nest-building and camouflage. Common mergansers and many other birds also build
with lichen. Numerous invertebrates, like spiders, moths, and slugs use it for
habitat, camouflage, and/or food. And lichen provides carbohydrate-laden meals
for local mountain goats, deer, moose, pikas, and rabbits. It's treasured in
the diet of rodents such as voles and flying squirrels, two of the major
staples of the critically-endangered Northern spotted owl. The Northern flying
squirrel gathers horsehair (Bryoria) lichens to make warm winter bedding to
nest in, and to provide a larder if necessary. Other large ungulates also eat horsehair
lichen in winter, and it was widely consumed by traditional societies, with
some thinking it a delicacy and others considering it famine food.
In spite of being tough, sensitive, successful, pioneering
organisms (hey, like some local skiers I know), lichens are losing ground to
ever increasing industrialization, and rapid habitat losses. Hopefully, with
the addition of information being provided by this unique life form, we will
soon come to a fuller realization of the impact our airborne pollutants have on
the environment. In the meantime, look out for brilliant Pincushion orange,
Devil's matchstick, or Peppered moon lichen, when you're heading out for some
hikin' or bikin'.
: Fungus Among Us Mushroom Festival.
Join us for another great fungofest next week. Andy MacKinnon and Sharmin
Gamiet will return to lead the mushroom talks and walks, and Ophrah Buckman
will present another tasty cooking show. We’ve also added lichens to our
program and have B.C.’s premier lichen expert, Trevor Goward, to introduce them
• Friday, Oct. 13
, 7:30 p.m.: Slide presentation
at Millennium Place. Suggested donation: $8/9.99 (member/non-member of the
• Saturday, Oct. 14
, 9 a.m.: Meet outside MY Place
for mushroom and lichen walks. $10/15.
• Saturday, Oct. 14
, 1 p.m.: Cooking
demonstration with Ophrah Buckman at Millennium Place.
For more details, contact Bob Brett (604-932-8900; Bob@SnowlineResearch.ca).