Microbes With A View - If Only They Had Eyes!
Updated: Nov 27, 2020
On a recent hike, we were perched on a ledge with a fabulous view of the White Mountain ‘Big Ones’ , the Presidential Range. I sat upon the edge and stared in awe at the view, grateful that my body will haul me up these hills so I can take in these vistas. I laid down there, eye level with the rock ledge, and I noticed that what looks smooth from a distance (I would the next weekend spot these rocky ledges from the atop the Presidentials) was quite rough and full of life. What was all this stuff? If they only had eyes, they could enjoy this view all the time, while I reveled in taking it in while I could.
When I am hiking, it’s easy to hyper-focus on trying not to fall on my face on the roots and rocks that make up the trails in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Also, breathing heavily (i.e. needing an oxygen tank) while I haul myself up a mountain isn’t always conducive to observing all that is going on around me, and there’s a lot going on!
So much that we don’t notice, even when we can pay a little attention to something other than staying alive and on the trail during a rest or summit break. I have always loved the trees and rocks and the permanency of them. Most were there before I existed and hopefully will remain long after I am gone.
As I’ve become more focused on microbes and their place in this world, I started wondering what the trees and rocks were often covered in. There were these patches growing everywhere, on the trees at the trail head and on exposed rocks on the unforgiving summits. Growing in many shapes and colors, there are so many patches of greys, greens, browns, blacks, red, orange, even neon-like colors on just about every surface.
They grow in circles, spirals, patches, lines, symmetrical and asymmetrical. I knew they were called Lichens (but I wasn’t even sure how to pronounce the word!)
So, let’s start there - it’s pronounced ligh-ken
(not lee-chen or ligh-chen). Lichen is very common and grows all over the world, in just about every habitat and climate. There are approximately 3,600 different species in North America - and we probably have not yet found them all! You may think that it is a plant because it’s often green and grows all over, but you would be wrong! It isn’t even a thing, it’s actually two (or more) organisms living symbiotically (meaning, they each bring something to a long-term biological interaction).
The first and more dominant organism is fungi, and it is what provides the structure (thallus) for the lichen. Fungi are eukaryotes, organisms that have a nucleus, which includes all plants, animals, protozoa, and fungi. The kingdom of fungi includes organisms such as yeasts, molds, and mushrooms (fundamentally different from plants and animals) (want to eat some fungi salad , popcorn or drink some mushroom coffee?). Fungi do not contain chlorophyll and do not photosynthesize, but they do give the lichen the majority of its characteristics (shape, growth, and movement). They also cannot feed themselves, and that’s where the partnership comes in. While the fungus protects and houses it, algae or bacteria (from yet another kingdom of species) provides energy and nutrients for the fungus so it can grow.
The algae can be either a green algae or a blue-green algae (or both), sometimes bacteria also give lichen it's hue, often this is cyanobacteria. Many lichens will have multiples algae or bacteria contributing to the overall hue of the holobiont. The algae has the ability to use photosynthesis to create energy for itself and the fungi that houses it. Algae can survive just about anywhere when part of a lichen relationship. There are no roots or vascular systems like we see in the forest plants and they don't seem susceptible to weather and wear. The variety of combinations certainly make lichens beautiful in their own way. As I look back over my pictures from the last couple of years of hiking, I can now see that I have encountered many lichens (even sat on them) during my hikes in New Hampshire and from the amount of pictures, I guess I loved them before I really knew them.
Sometimes I drive my hiking partners crazy with all of the moss and lichen pictures I take (notice this pic has both) . And while I can get caught up in my quest for the summit, I think I’ll try and slow down and take it all in more. These small things, microbes among us, make our world more beautiful and worth the efforts to get to the views.
Look at all that lichen on the rocks of Mt Garfield!
Do you know what the lichens pictured are? Please comment below - I'm just starting to learn and would love to hear from you!