Likin’ Lichen

Once there was a fungus and an algae. The fungus had a really big, nice house with way more space than he needed, but he was a really terrible cook. The algae was a great cook, a gourmet chef, and he was looking for somewhere to live. So, they moved in together… and they took a LICHEN to each other!

I told this joke in almost every forest ecology class I taught at Jekyll Island. It’s a terrible, horrible, awful joke, but at least it helped the kids understand that lichen is actually fungus and algae living together symbiotically, with the algae providing the fungus with food (photosynthate) in return for living within its structure.

Sometimes I would hand each kid a card with a photo and description of a plant we were going to see and let them do the teaching, telling the rest of the group what their plant was called and some interesting facts about it. Invariably the one who got lichen – not technically a plant, of course, but close enough – would look a bit disappointed at first (and so would you, if you were eleven and your classmates’ cards talked about palm trees and Spanish moss!) but then warm to the subject when they read the card, spending the rest of the hike watching eagerly for bright pink splashes of “bubblegum” lichen, which were prettier but less common than the gray-green ones. The facts on the lichen card explained that, though it’s sensitive to pollution and can be an indicator of ecosystem health, it’s also one of the first organisms to colonize bare rock and can survive in harsh environments like deserts… and tundra.

See, this is going somewhere relevant to the Rocky Mountains after all! The rocks scattered among the alpine tundra in Rocky Mountain National Park were covered in lichens in a variety of colors and textures, and one reason the signs once again warned us sharply to stay on the path was so as not to trample them. There are many types of lichens, and though I may not know how to identify them I can still appreciate their diversity.

So, have you taken a likin’ to lichens to? Sorry, sorry, couldn’t resist!

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