Choose Your Own Adventure

Mai by Alphonse Mucha

Ahh, dear May…you are nearly over! As the days lengthen and temperatures climb, a bittersweet resignation settles in; I accept the progression of Spring into Summer and that soon, my focus will shift away from lichens for a while. I’m savoring the last few weeks of it.

To my chagrin, I didn’t go a’ Maying at the start of this month but I did manage to haunt a forested lakefront on a lichen collecting expedition.

unknown photographer;

The illustrious James Lendemer chauffeured me in his rental car through the Pocono mountains, which are lovely with decrepit 70s era motels languishing amidst cottages and winding wooded roads. The forests here are so dainty compared to the Pacific Northwest’s old growth grandeur but they suffice for a nature-hungry waif like myself. After a second breakfast in Newfoundland, where I sadly missed the tasting of “scrapple” due to it’s possession of wheat, we drove on and circumvented Scranton, Pennsylvania of ‘The Office’ fame and finally landed at Frances Slocum State Park. The park itself was a pleasant and piddly little thing which held a surprising diversity of lichens, especially species that live on rocks (at least one of which Mr. Lendemer named).

Our trail amble was sweetened by brevity and masses of invasive honeysuckle blooms, upon which a buzzing, diverse crowd of insects were gorging themselves. Every so often my hunting companion made delighted exclamations of Latin names, as if bumping into old friends on the street. We saw all kinds of subtly bizzarre things, including a jade colored fungus the likes of which I’d never encountered; it looked a bit like this, but less intense:

Chlorociboria aeruginascens by Bob Gibbons;

It’s not a lichen, but it looks similar in some ways. It produces fruiting bodies in a familiar form because the fungi that most commonly lichenize are Ascomycetes, which is what this fungus is.

Chlorociboria sp. by George Barron;

Being in a natural setting with James is such fun. He’s quite knowledgeable about so many of the organisms and their proceedings and his enthusiasm makes it extra exciting. At one point, he came around a rocky outcrop with cupped hands extended and said, “Look!”. When he opened them up, an adorable, bumpy toad peered back at me and clumsily stumbled around. James thought it was an American toad, like the one below. It was so small that I could only pet it gently with just one finger before it was released into its riparian habitat. I decided that our friend looked like it was covered in a brownish crust lichen! Compare:

In the midst of my collecting, I remembered to stop for a few moments to admire my surroundings–before me was a small, placid lake surrounded by freshly budded and leafing trees and such delicious quiet–I hadn’t been out of New York City since I arrived, so this was quite a treat! It seems the further from the city you get, the farther behind the vegetation is in waking from its Winter slumber–a common phenomenon due to the ambient warmth that the metropolitan area–in all its energy-burning and concrete glory–tends to cradle. Manmade microclimates are good for something, I guess. Staggered Spring!

I’ve been steadily working through all of the lichens I collected in order to discover their identity; their names are a mystery until I observe all of their important characteristics and work through a key to figure them out. I have the excellent fortune of sitting in a room with the man who wrote some of the keys to the species I am processing, so I get to ask him questions, clarify his terms and use his incredibly fancy video microscope to peer into these tiny things. A magical window indeed.

Identification keys are often found in guide books about whatever type of organism you want to get to know, though there are interactive ones online as well. I’ve used keys to ID plants, fungi, lichens, animal bones, butterflies, minerals, etcetera. Many of the keys are arranged dichotomously, which means they will offer two choices, one of which will best describe what you are observing if you’re in the right spot. Here’s a simple illustrated one about sharks:

The first couplet is usually pretty basic information and once a choice is made, it will lead you to the next two options; it will get more specific the further it goes. It’s a lot like a Choose Your Own Adventure story but instead of the resolution to the plot, you get to know another organism by the end of it!

Lichens are very challenging to key out because they’re so small and require a microscope for many features, in addition to chemical tests that are sometimes ambiguous and depend on the variable concentrations of chemicals present in the lichen. As with any good science, there is a whole language involved–the terminology further complicates the process but I love it.

Lichenology is such a young science that there is still much to discover; I wonder what we will know about these mysterious, mini-ecosystems in 5 years…in 10…20? I hope to lend a hand to the discoveries and continue participating in this adventure in whatever small way I may. Cheers–to a lichen enlightenment! Now check this out: Ways of Enlichenment.


sex and nonsex

Julius Klinkhardt;

It is Spring! The sun is warm and strong now and days of it are strung together with lustrous rainy ones. Plants are waggling their petaled parts, exuding fragrant messages and beckoning to whatever vector makes the magic happen for them. People are shedding Winter-worn layers for brighter, lighter and smaller articles, revealing ever more of themselves to the hungry eyes and fluttering hearts of their compatriots. The air is ripe with pollen grains enough to excite any wayfaring sinus or epiglottis into a crescendo of…mucus? Hmmm. Luckily for yours truly, northeastern Spring doesn’t have such an expectorant effect and indeed, I am all too happy to be whisked away into blissful reverie by the pungent, floral-scented Atlantic breezes. Swoon!

Now I want to tell you about lichen sex. I cannot refrain from anthropomorphizing this subject, so I appreciate your forgiveness in advance. Thank you. As a burgeoning scientist, I’m not supposed to attribute human characteristics to other organisms but I think it’s helpful to have some kind of context within which to understand this fairly complicated and unusual subject. Plus, it’s far more fun to explain it in ways that appeal to our desire for relatable drama.

The most basic way to put what I have to say is this: some lichens have sex and some do not. At least, we haven’t seen them do it.

Ah-break it dowwwnn:

Sexy lichens have sex. The most outstanding thing about this evolutionary mechanism is the dynamic between the symbiotic partners–the fungi wear the bossy pants and actually suppress the reproductive abilities of their algae or cyanobacteria. Although the fungi and algae don’t have sex with each other, they are domestic partners in that they share living quarters and the algae also feeds the fungi food that it’s photosynthesized for itself. What’s more, the fungi gets to have all the reproductive fun they can muster but refuses to allow the photobiont to reproduce. No sexy time! It’s not the most fair relationship by my standards but it’s apparently working well for them, so obviously I am not an appropriate judge. It is thought that this measure ensures that the algae doesn’t evolve into less suitable genetic configurations that wouldn’t work as well for the fungus to partner up with. To complicate things a bit, let me blow your mind with this interesting, though somewhat irrelevant fact: fungi have so many sexual types that there is no male or female–if you’ve read my previous posts, you have to know how much I love this divergence from boring old binary gender systems.

As I was saying, it is only the fungus which thrusts its way through the surface of the lichen, creating structures we refer to as a “fruiting body”, which are analogous to genitals in that they release reproductive spores. It could look like these parts:

Dibaeis baeomyces by Stephen/Sylvia Sharnoff;

Suggestive, no?

apothecia types; Erik Acharius;

So, their spores are disseminated into the world, not just to make new genetic combinations, but specifically to search for that special someone to move in with: an algal symbiotic partner. They’re really into interspecific relationships. You see, the fungi that wants to become a lichen is dependent upon algae–it can’t live without it! Isn’t that terribly romantic? Less romantic is the fact that fungi can switch algal partners. If it doesn’t like the one it’s with, it can pick a more suitable partner either by stealing it from another lichen or acquiring it from a free-living algae community.

Non-sexy lichens do not have sex. They can also be referred to as sterile, but that makes them sound like they’re lolling about at the end of their genetic lineage…which is just not true! It might be that some of them are just very discreet and only have sex occasionally which we just haven’t seen enough of to say that they do. The ones who don’t have sex are not prudes devoted to practicing abstinence, nor are they barren curmudgeons–they simply don’t need sex to reproduce. These crafty little darlings have evolved into this lifestyle because it’s clearly successful for them.

Isidia; unknown photographer

They produce asexual propagules, which are little bundles of cells that can grow into genetic replicas–a clone, if you will. They come in a couple of forms, being isidia, which are finger-like or soredia, which are more like balls or granules. These propagules are released by the lichen into the environment, typically via water, animals or wind, and if they land on their preferred surface (we call that a “substrate”) and are surrounded in the right conditions, they can become a new lichen with the same genetic makeup. It’s kind of crazy. That’s like if you grew fingers which fell off and then grew into a whole new you! This method is not unique to lichens–some plant species also produce “pups” that can grow into new plants…investigate stonecrops, agave, yucca, cacti and spider plants for more info on how they do such magnificent things. The picture below is a succulent plant with three smaller pup propagules around it.

Echeveria agavoides w/ pups;

Unfortunately, sterile lichens don’t get much lichenology play because so many scientists aren’t willing to take the time to understand them. They’re challenging. Dunh-duh-duh-nuhnnn, James Lendemer to the rescue! James, whom you may recall from my previous post, is a lichenologist at the New York Botanical Garden who has championed the sterile crustose lichens for years now–researching them, redefining their taxonomies and even the ways in which we look at and describe them. He’s written keys for them, which are necessary to identification and thusly make it possible for us to get to know who we’re working with.

Sterile lichens are every bit as important as reproductive lichens because they provide similar services to humans and they have their own role in their environment–they deserve to be protected from habitat destruction for the very same reasons. They are extra important even, because they tell us a different story about evolution and the perpetuation of species. I, for one, am listening.

What shall I call thee?

Fungi by Carl Linnaeus

I just love names. I love applying monikers to plants, animals, inanimate objects, pieces of art, actions, dance moves, stories and poetry, colors, etcetera. I used to want to design my own line of cosmetics just so I could name the products–when I was fifteen, I had an idea for a nail polish collection inspired by bowling balls…but I digress.

What I want to talk about is taxonomy. Taxonomy is the classification of things; in biology, this is about understanding how one species relates to other species, which leads to finding a position for them within the tree of life and ensures that they are properly named. Humans tend to come up with systems that help us organize the things we find around us and it is convenient to have something consistent to call these things so we can effectively communicate about them.

Scientific names use Latin to create helpful uniformity, though some names have Greek roots too. For example, a person from Vietnam can say Helianthus annus to a Colombian and both can feel confident that they are referring to the well-known North American sunflower. ‘Sunflower’ is what we refer to as it’s common name–these kinds of names are dangerous and tricky because they could refer to anything that a person thinks is a sunflower, which might not be anything close to the species you imagine when you think of a sunflower. According to Wikipedia, there are 38 species of native perennial sunflowers in North America alone, so you can imagine that without a specific name, we could be talking about very different plants. This makes a big difference in the larger picture–say, if you wanted to eat something or use it as medicine, you’d need to be certain you’re ingesting the right plant or fungi (considering some are rather poisonous and could potentially kill you).

Carl Linneaus;

Binomial nomenclature was invented by Carl Linneaus. He invented this standard naming system because it was such a confusing jumble otherwise. Let me break it down for you: the whole name includes two parts–1) a genus and 2) a species, in that order. Though it comes first, the genus is like your last name–other people in your family share it, indicating that you’re related. You also have your own unique first name, which is analogous to the species name (unless you’re a junior, in which case I’m not talking about you). This two name system makes it easier to talk about plants, animals, fungi–even bacteria have scientific names. As humans, in our current evolutionary form, we are called Homo sapiens. You might notice that I’ve italicized every Latin name and capitalized only the first letter of the genus, which is the correct way to type it. When handwritten, you simply underline the name.

To get even more legit, when you write common names, they are not capitalized unless they contain a proper noun, such as Williamson’s sapsucker (Sphyrapicus thyroideus) vs. yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius); this subject is debated within the scientific community but it is how I was taught as a botanist/writer by a botanist/writer and I will adhere to it until someone provides me with sound reasoning otherwise.

Listen to a brief and amusing episode of NPR’s ‘All Things Considered’ about naming species with Robert Krulwich:

It is important to note that this somewhat reductionist branch of science is not the only legitimate system for naming things. There is immense value in the taxonomies used by indigenous communities, where the names allow them to communicate details about the species they interact with to a degree in which scientific names fall quite short. This article describes just that: Endangered languages encode plant and animal knowledge

Lichens are special because they are not one single organism, as they may appear to the naked eye. Upon closer inspection, we find that they are a partnership of fungi, algae or cyanobacteria and bacteria, which are not normally related to each other. Because these species join forces and operate as if they were one, and since they look very different in their partnership than in their individual forms, lichens are often referred to as a singular organism. It’s confusing, huh?! We could think of them as a tiny ecosystem or we could look at them as a composite individual, like we do a sunflower. Either way, we need to be able to identify them by a tidy little name so we go with the conventional binomial nomenclature, which is based on the fungal partner (aka–the mycobiont). Only 3 percent of the algal species (photobionts) that become the lichens we know and love have been identified, so this kind of makes sense.

Read more about this conundrum here in an essay on the names of lichens by Trevor Goward, who is a prominent lichenologist.

Entrances and side doors

Oscar Furbacken’s ‘Urban Lichen’

After a wintry season spent learning and dreaming of the circus and freak shows, Spring has delivered me into new digs and an old obsession; New York City and I have reunited and I have resumed my study of lichens! I can hardly believe my good fortune in the opportunities and events which have presented themselves; persistent dreams are now unfolding, yielding effortlessly in ways I never even dreamed possible. My heart swells in ebullient blooms of joy every time I recall my present reality. (Sighhh).

I am now a “volunteer-intern” at the New York Botanical Garden, where I stand at the intersection of at least three of my dreams. What seems like a lifetime ago, I tried to move to this fine and ferocious city. I was here for two months trying to get on my feet with a job and home and it simply didn’t work out. My first choice for work had been as a gardener’s assistant at this very institution but I couldn’t even get an interview. Now, I  enter its gates via academia (with an official badge!) and work in a field I love (minus manual labor!), plus I get to learn from and connect with fancy scientists at one of the most prestigious botanical research facilities in our country. I pinch myself almost every day just to be sure.

Christopher Ong

I feel such honor and privilege every time I enter the heavy doors of this majestic library building, which is where I now work. My current project is to help preserve collections of ancient lichens in one of the world’s best herbaria–an herbarium is a collection of preserved plants that may also include fungi and lichens. The New York Botanical Garden’s herbarium is second only to the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris. You can check out NYBG’s virtual Steere Herbarium here.

The collection I’m currently working with is from Europe–so far, most of the specimens have been from Finland. Each crumbling paper packet holds the promise of surprise–their stories I can only imagine. I am finding species that I recognize from my own collections and field work in the Pacific Northwest, though most I’ve never heard of–a seemingly endless parade of variation in form is revealed to me about thirteen times an hour. Through the objectives of my antiquated microscope, I observe the minute features of what appear to be bizarre alien landscapes. I even found the corpse of a tiny ant that’s likely been dead for nearly one hundred years; it was perfectly intact, as if it had just fallen asleep while exploring, frozen in time but never to awake. I wanted to take a picture of it but I realized that I didn’t bring my digital camera to NYC with me. I need to borrow one!

I love the thought of my trajectory meeting that of the scientists who came before me–of my hands touching the work of their hands…splicing my own story with their legacies. What would they think of me in this modern world, fussing over their specimens as if I were swaddling babies, shaking life back into the fruits of their passion while swooning over their elegant penmanship? I hope my enthusiasm pleases their long-deceased spirits.

One of the best things about this experience is that I am working with a highly regarded lichenologist by the name of James Lendemer–a prolific, brilliant man who is now my field supervisor. I adore him! He is so thoughtful and generous in addition to being fun, welcoming and patient with me. Check out this sweet and informative video starring Mr. Lendemer himself!

I am very much looking forward to getting to know the lichens and flora / fauna of the Northeast, as I’ve never actually been anywhere on the east coast other than New York City. Adventures! If you’re in this corner of the country and want to adventure with me, please let me know!