Lichens: Unlikely Citizen Science Subjects

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We’re avid fans of citizen science, in part because of its breadth of possibilities. People can study historical documents, look for birds, record phenologies in forests, hunt lionfish, count butterflies, and perform dozens of other activities to help discover more about the world around and before us. One thing we didn’t expect to ever see was a citizen science initiative covering something as seemingly — but obviously looks can be deceiving — as lichens. Lisa Feldkamp reports for The Nature Conservancy’s science blog, Cool Green Science, excerpted in parts below:

Welcome to the exciting world of lichens. And no, that’s not oxymoronic.

A lichen is actually a composite organism: algae or cyanobacteria living with a fungus symbiotically. That definition, admittedly, doesn’t help their charisma factor.

But look at them closely and you’ll see a wonderful, colorful tapestry.

Get out a hand lens or microscope and an even more amazing world is revealed.

“One of the cool things about lichens is their ability to survive extremes,” says Tiffany Beachy of Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont. “When it’s dry they shrivel and look like they’ve dried out, but with a drop of water they turn green.”

One of the most unique inhabitants of lichen is the tardigrade (a.k.a. water bear) is the first life-form with a proven ability to survive in the vacuum of space.

However, lichens have an Achilles’ heel: air pollution.

The Lichen Monitoring project began in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in order to monitor the effects of air pollution, especially sulfur, on lichen density and biodiversity.

Students from Cullowhee Valley School in Sylva, NC monitor lichens at the high elevation lichen site at the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center. © NPS


Why is Lichen Monitoring Important?

Lichens act as a natural sentinel of air quality.

“I learned about a project in England that had been tracking the impacts of air pollution on lichens since the 1970’s,” says Susan Sachs of the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center. “They were able to see sensitive lichen species repopulate in areas that were successful in reducing sulfur in air pollution.”

Cherokee High School students from Cherokee, NC isolate water bears from lichen samples collected in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Students have helped to collect lichen and moss samples that have resulted in 59 new species records for the park and 18 species new to science. © NPS


How Can You Get Involved in Lichen Monitoring?

If you are a teacher or student living near the Great Smoky Mountains, contact the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center or the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont to enroll in their lichen monitoring classes.

Or, start your own lichen monitoring program!

Researchers designed the study to be easily replicable and hope that more people will set up citizen science lichen monitoring programs and share data through Hands on the Land.

All you need to start are six trees with lichen on them to monitor, some string, and a transparency grid. Details on getting started are available online and you can contact Tiffany Beachy for more information.

A close look at lichens could transform your view of the little things in nature!

Check out the full blog article by Feldkamp here.

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