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

Field Museum intern Hannah Ranft from Riverside Brookfield High School is curating and scanning Lobariaceae lichens as part of a global revision of the family in New Zealand. The lichen shown is Sticta menziesii, a species not previously recognized but detected through DNA sequencing methods. Using the high-resolution scans, Hannah then found several morphological characters that separate the species from its closest relatives, S. filix and S. latifrons. The delicate, shrub-like specimen is the same lichen fungus as the lobed, green one, but has a different, cyanobacterial photobiont and can fix atmospheric nitrogen. These forms have been called Dendriscocaulon but DNA sequencing shows they contain the same fungal symbiont as the much larger, green forms.

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.

New Zealand is known for its extraordinary diversity of Lobariaceae, with over 70 species reported. Yet, species concepts are in great need of revision, which is why our Field Museum lichenologists Thorsten Lumbsch and Robert Lücking study this family in a global, NSF-funded project. Supervised by Robert and supported by a stipend from the Field Museum's Prince Fund, intern Hannah Ranft from Riverside Brookfield High School has been curating and barcoding more than 1000 specimens collected by Robert and colleagues Bibiana Moncada and Peter de Lange in New Zealand in February this year and scanned about 700 Lobariaceae samples at high resolution.

Hannah was also trained by Robert in how to assemble phylogenetic trees using sequences generated by Bibiana for nearly 500 samples and is using the high resolution scans to compare the morphology of the specimens with their position in the trees. That way, existing species concepts can be tested and adjusted. Hannah already documented two species that are new to science and resolved the species concept for several others. Hannah's project is going through the end of June and by then Hannah will have established herself as an expert on New Zealand Lobariaceae and will co-author a revision of the family from "down under".