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Liking Lichens

24 Feb 2021

By Karen Banton, Assistant Collections and Learning Curator

* Click on the photos below to visit our Collections Online database and discover more about that object. *

During lockdown, one of the things I’ve had the chance to do, thanks to our John Ellerman Foundation-funded project, is get some of the Ipswich lichen collections onto our online database. This involved completing the documentation of our reference collection of British lichens, also known as the Hitch Collection.

Lichens aren’t something you tend to hear much about, even though you can find them almost everywhere. They aren’t a single being in the way we usually think of living organisms. While some look like plants, they aren’t, and while others look like they might be mould, they aren’t that either!

Lichens are a partnership between a fungi and an algae or cyanobacteria. Why would they form a symbiotic partnership? Well, fungus can’t make its own food, but it can absorb minerals and provide shelter. Algae and cyanobacteria are both excellent at photosynthesis, meaning that they can provide enough food for both themselves and their fungi partner, in exchange for the minerals and shelter it can’t provide for itself.

They grow on rocks, walls, trees and, given the chance, even animal fur… They are an important part of the ecosystem, providing homes for invertebrates, food for many animals and even nesting material.

Getting these lichens online meant I got to look at all the pictures I’d taken, so here are my 10 favourites…

 

Lobaria pulmonaria

A composite of four images of lungwort lichen. Each image is bordered by a black outline. On the left is a large image taking up three quarters of the composite, shows the entire top surface of the lungwort lichen, a curled edged brown lichen on a white background. The surface of the lichen in uneven and spotted with darker brown. On the right quarter of the image are three magnified images of different parts of the lichen. The top right image shows magnified fruiting bodies on a patch of pale brown lichen, they are dark brown-black round spots with brown edges. The centre right image is a magnified view of the lichen showing mottled colouring, the lichen is predominantly a pale brown, but the top two thirds of this image is partially covered by white edged blue-grey irregularly shaped marks. The bottom right image is a magnified view of the curled-up edge of the lichens lobe. The edges of the lobe are white, with the rest being pale brown, The curled up edge shows the underside of the lichen and reveal that it is covered in fine white hairs.

This lichen is known as lungmoss or lungwort. They are unusual because they form a partnership with fungus, algae and cyanobacteria. They grow on trees in ancient woodlands, so seeing them is a good indicator that the wood you’re in is very old. In life they are a bright green. This family of lichens is very sensitive to pollution and Lobaria pulmonaria was once common across the UK and Europe, but is now extinct in many of its old ranges. In the UK it is most common in western and central Scotland, but occurs in other UK areas including Wales.

Even dried out and brown, you can still see hints of how it would have varied in colour by looking up close at the different colourations and textures, from the fine white hair like strands on its curled up edges, to the mottled colour of the underside, to the dark dots that are what remains of the lichens fruiting bodies.

 

Opegrapha niveoatra

A composite of three images. Each image in bordered by a black outline. The main image is on the left is of two cut willow twigs, bark side up, on a white background. The bark is a mottled grey-green and dark brown, either end of the twig shows smoothly cut ends. The right third is split between two magnified images of the bark. The top image shows a magnified image of the bark on the edge of the twig, the bottom right of the image is an out of focus shot of the pale wood of the twig, the rest is mostly a silver-grey with small dark markings and a patch of powdery wide growth. The bottom image is a magnified image of the bark. Most of the bark is a silver-grey with some brown and black patches. In the centre of the images are some oval fruiting bodies with orange-brown centres and pale edges

Now these aren’t just any old bits of willow. No, they may not look like much, but a closer inspection (with a microscope) reveals that the speckling on the bark is the fruiting body of a lichen and its powdery looking crust. Those little black strands that cover the rest of the bark are also part of the lichen Opegrapha niveoatra. It’s not the easiest to identify (or spot!) but it just goes to show that if you take a closer look, you might discover that the twig you are holding is more than just a bit of tree!

 

Pannaria rubiginosa

A composite image of three lichen images. Each image in bordered by a black outline. The main image is on the left and consists of two thirds of the overall image. It consists of a photo of a triangular clump of dried green-orange moss on a white background, on the right of the clump there is a white edged lichen growing in the moss. On the right are two magnified images of the lichen in the moss. The top right image shows the white edged pale yellow-green lichen. The bottom right image is of the fruiting bodies of the lichen, they are oval with a dark brown centre and pale edges, they are nestled in the rest of the lichen

Pannaria rubiginosa belongs to a group mostly found in tropical regions, but is one of the species that live in the UK! This specimen is one of my favourite lichen because you can see how it’s made a home on some moss. A closer peak shows how it has a flattened surface and its edges are much paler than the rest. Its fruiting bodies are disk like with a white rim, making them stand out from the rest of the lichen.

It tends to grow on mossy bark in old forests and, much like the lungwort, is now found in far fewer places than it used to be, mostly in western Scotland.

 

Usnea filipendula

An image of a dried beard lichen, bordered by a black outline. The lichen is on a white background. It is made up of multiple long thin pale brown strands that are tangled together, near the bottom of the image on the lichen there are thicker lobes of lichen

This distinctive tangle of strands is known as a beard lichen. Usnea filipendula may look like other beard lichens, but this group is one of the most easily spotted at a distance. Lichens like this grow on trees and would have originally been pale grey before drying out. Its long strands look a bit like hair as they dangle downwards, which is how it earned its common name.

They mostly grow in the north of the UK, and can sometimes be found in the south and southwest, but you’ll need to explore old woodlands to find them.

 

Acarospora glaucocarpa

A composite image of three cobblestone lichen images. Each image in bordered by a black outline. The main image on the left is of a white chalk rock on a white background. The bottom and right edge is partially covered in a dark lichen with round growths. On the right are two magnified images of the lichen growing on the rock. The top right image shows the dark crust like lichen growth on the chalky rock, there are some round brown fruiting body. The bottom left shows another section of the lichen growth, also with dark crusting growth and round overlapping brown with white edges fruiting bodies

This rock is part covered by a lichen known as Acarospora glaucocarpa, also called cobbled or cracked lichen because of its often-overlapping circular growths. They tend to grow on rocks in dry open places. It may not be the most colourful of the lichens on this list, but it’s one of my favourites because of how strongly it contrasts with the rock its growing on.  Also, when you get close, it looks like an aerial photograph of an alien landscape….

You ‘ll rarely come across this lichen in the UK, but if you’re somewhere with limestone landscapes, you just might find it!

 

Caloplaca granulosa

An image of capibara shaped rock on a white background with a black border. The top of the rock where the ‘head’ is has a small amount of yellow lichen growth

This is one of six rocks that were collected because they were partially covered in Caloplaca granulosa. They were found on the coast in Orkney, Scotland. It’s eye-catching yellow makes it jump out, but I’ll admit, it’s not my favourite example in our collection. Instead, it’s a favourite because of the rock its growing on, which looks a little like a sitting capybara, with the lichen acting as a head covering or hair and nose.

Capybara are the world’s largest rodent and one of my favourite animals so, silly as it may seem, this made my top ten…

 

Caloplaca granulosa

A composite of four images of a lichen covered rock. Each image is bordered by a black outline. On the left is a large image taking up three quarters of the composite, has a large flat surfaced grey rock covered in patched of yellow and orange lichen on a white background. On the right quarter of the image are three magnified images of different parts of the lichen. The top right image shows magnified grey and brown fruiting bodies on a patch oof pale yellow-grey crust like lichen. The centre right image is a magnified view of the rock with the top left and bottom right corners partially covered in yellow lichen growth and the grey rock in between dotted with dark brown fruiting bodies with pale edges. The bottom right image is a magnified view of the yellow lichen, some of the yellow oval growth have a dull orange-brown centre.

Now I’ll confess, I hesitated to include a second example of Caloplaca granulosa, but this is my favourite example from the collection. It too was found on the coasts of Orkney but, unlike the previous entry, it gives a better example of just how colourful lichen can be!

Although a closer inspection shows that there may be more than one species on this rock…

 

Cetraria islandica

An image of a flattened dried red-brown Iceland moss lichen on a white background with a black border

Iceland moss is a lichen that grows in solid clumps, giving it a moss-like look. It’s much more solid than many lichens and the leaflike lobes are bordered by spiked edges. It’s striking appearance is the main reason I like it. This one was found growing on the soil of a mountain in Aberdeenshire.

When famines struck, northern Europeans would eat this lichen and it’s considered a ‘culinary lichen’. Not usually on the menu these days, it is used in traditional medicine and in some skincare products.

 

Dirina massiliensis 

A composite image of lichen images. Each image in bordered by a black outline. The main image on the left is of a card with white grey fragments of a crusty lichen stuck to it in a mostly circular shape. The card had Dirina mass gore written in blue ink on the top right corner and South Cove written in blue along the bottom. On the right are two magnified images of the lichen stuck to the card. The top right image shows the mottled white grey of the crust lichen, there are lines in the lichen that may be from fractures, or could be from growth. The bottom left shows another section of the lichen growth, the lichen here is also pale grey with irregular mottling of darker grey and black.

This lichen may not look like much, but it still caught my eye and is one of the few lichens collected by Hitch in Suffolk. It’s stuck to some card because Dirina massiliensis is a kind of crust lichen, which means that scraping was the only way to get it off the church wall it was growing on. If it hadn’t been stuck down, the specimen would have crumbled and broken up.

This is the kind of lichen you’ll often see growing on old stone walls. It usually grows in a disk like shape, although can sometimes end up a little more irregular. But this certainly explains why it was stuck onto the card the way it was. Hitch was trying to recreate the disk like growth!

 

Haematomma ochroleucum

A composite image of a bloodstain lichen images. Each image in bordered by a black outline. The main image on the left is of a dark grey rock almost entirely covered in a cream coloured crust lichen, on the top right of the rock there are many red spots, the rock is on a white background. There is another patch of red spots on the bottom of the rock near the middle of the image. On the right are two magnified images of the red fruiting bodies of the lichen. The top right image shows the mottled white-grey of the cracked crust of the lichen, with irregularly shaped red spots of various sizes, the two largest red patches have some yellow in them as well. The bottom left shows another section of the lichen growth, the lichen here is also pale-grey crust with a cracked surface dotted with red irregular shaped spots, some of these are partially yellow and one is completely yellow.

Haematomma ochroleucum is a common UK lichen and can be found all over Britain. While most of this crusty lichen is white or pale grey, it’s spotted with red – these are its distinctive fruiting bodies, earning it’s family the name of bloodstain lichens. This contrast between the main body of the lichen and it’s red spotting is memorable and why it’s one of my favourites.

 

So those were my top ten, why not have a look at our Hitch British Lichens collection online and see which ones catch your eye?

 

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