Blogs & Videos: Fungi

Field Museum Intern Hannah Ranft takes a stab at revising New Zealand lichens

Macrolichens in the family Lobariaceae are among the most conspicuous and charismatic lichens on the planet, due to their often large, colorful thalli and their ecological importance and potential uses. Many species have cyanobacterial photobionts and are capable of fixing atmospheric nitrogen, hence acting as biological fertilizers. Lobariaceae are also good indicators of environmental health and the conservation status of forest ecosystems. Species such as Lobaria pulmonaria have been used in homoeopathic medicine.

North Carolina Zoo polar bear habitat with fake rocks and painted lichens

Attention to lichen detail in the polar bear habitat

One of the best zoos Collections Manager Robert Lücking has ever visited is the North Carolina Zoo, with its vast area allowing much space for its animals. Also, the attention to detail is quite amazing. Many dioramas include rock features made out of various materials including concrete, specifically designed to meet the animals' needs. What is astonishing, however, that the designers and builders even took care to mimic lichens growing on these fake rocks, and even on close-up these look so real that one has to make sure they are not just paint.

Model of the Canopy Operation Access System using lichens as tree canopies

Lichens helped to establish canopy research system in French Guiana

Back in the days, our fungi and lichens Collections Manager Robert Lücking was involved in a project to design and establish a canopy access system in French Guiana for the study of the functional biodiversity of tropical rain forest canopies. The system was named COPAS: Canopy Operation Access System. To obtain initial funding for the project, Robert spent countless hours to built the model depicted here, including trees with a canopy formed by reindeer lichens.

Model train diorama photographed in Germany

Lichens and model trains

Lichens of the genus Cladina (the reindeer lichens) are commonly used as ornaments, including for dioramas with model trains, where they make bushes and tree crowns. Our fungi and lichens Collections Manager Robert Lücking used to have a model train when he was young and remembers spending many hours building the diorama, setting up small areas of forest and bush using differently colored lichens. He had no idea at that point that he would actually study lichens scientifically when grown up.

Lichen-covered car door on display in the lichen exhibit at the Field Museum

Old, lichen-covered car door displayed like a precious jewel

April is taxidermy and diorama month. At first glance difficult to make a connection to lichens. But only at first glance. Of course the best example of lichen dioramas is our very own lichen exhibit, and especially its center piece: the now famous car door. It nicely shows how an old piece of "junk", specifically the driver door of a classic Ford Bronco, can come to shine in new light. Whereas a lichen-covered car is already a spectacular sight, our exhibit team did a fabulous job in setting up said door in a case illuminated with UV, making it look like a precious jewel.

A selection of lichens with "baby" lichens (tiny phyllidia and lobules destined to form new lichen individuals)

How lichens reproduce with "greenhorn" baby lichens...

As a symbiosis between a fungus and a photosynthetic alga or cyanobacterium, lichens have particular challenges when it comes to reproduction and growing fully mature lichens out of tiny baby lichens. Many lichens have mastered this challenge by producing small thallus portions that already look like tiny lichens and, once dispersed, immediately start growing and forming a fully functional lichen. These tiny "greenhorn" lichens growing on their parent lichen are called phyllidia or lobules, due to their flattened appearance that resembles the lobes of mature lichens, only much smaller.

A selection of charismatic Lobariaceae lichens in New Zealand

Lichens as bioindicators of forest health

Going green is all about conserving the environment. Not just because a healthy environment increases our quality of living, but because we owe it to the next generations to conserve our planet so they have a chance to enjoy its spectacular beauty and diversity as we do. Since forests are one of the primary sources of oxigen, conservation of forests is of great importance both in temperate and tropical areas. In many regions, forests are monitored as to their conservation status, and bioindicators are an important tool to accomplish this task.

A recently discovered, yet undescribed "window" lichen from Hawaii

"Window" lichens mimick highly adapted desert plants

Lichens come in all colors and shapes, but many lichens are green when hydrated and metabolizing, due to their green algal photobionts. So it is not surprising that lichens are often mistaken for plants, even if they actually represent symbiotic fungi and hence are more closely related to animals. To make the confusion perfect, the internal anatomy of many lichens resembles that of plant leaves, with the photobiont layer positioned in a similar way as the chlorophyll layer in leaves.

The tiny lichen Gyalectidium setiferum is spreading in central Europe on suitable evergreen plants due to global warming.

Hoping for global warming after a cold winter... and lichens as bioindicators of climate change

This month's topic is March and green. Of course, everybody by now is anxiously waiting for spring, to get rid of the polar vortex. Hopefully that will happen soon! By the way, the expanded polar vortex that affects large parts of North America with bitter cold is a direct consequence of global warming!

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