Where the Lichens Go
A new, NSF-supported project aims to unravel one of nature’s enduring mysteries.
For decades, biologists have grappled with questions involving nature’s way of distributing plants and animals: Why, in short, are some species found all over, while others barely budge from their ancestral homes?
The search for solutions is more complicated than one might think, particularly for the seldom-studied smaller species that make up the bulk of life on Earth. A new grant from the National Science Foundation will help EWU’s Jessica Allen, an assistant professor of biology, and her long-time research collaborator James Lendemer, a curator at The New York Botanical Garden, to provide answers — at least for lichens, one of the more ubiquitous, enigmatic and consequential of these smaller species.
Earlier this month, NSF awarded the two scientists more than $625,000 each to pursue their Central Appalachian Lichen Project, a wide-ranging investigation into how various factors, both natural and man-made, may have influenced the dispersal of various lichen species across the central Appalachian region, a beautiful but endangered biodiversity hotspot.
The project’s daunting first step, says Allen, involves field work to fix the locations and identities of as many of the multitudinous local lichens— those odd hybrids of fungus and algae — as possible.
“Having a decent grasp on a species’ prevalence and distribution is actually quite challenging,” she says. “Especially with lichens, because so few people study them.”
As part of the grant, student researchers, along with public volunteers who sign on to participate in what Allen has dubbed the “Great Appalachian Lichen BioBlitz,” will be deployed to help meet the lichen-location challenge by photographing and sharing their collected observations on a digital platform called iNaturalist.
The core research team will then take a deeper dive into documenting lichen occurrences by collecting and identifying “voucher specimens” from hundreds of sites throughout the region. These specimens will help researchers capture detailed, in-depth site data and will also provide material for future study.
Next up will be genetic analysis, data analytics and other laboratory-based procedures to leverage the field findings and bio-blitzing to build a comprehensive profile of the central Appalachian region’s diverse lichen population. Allen and Lendemer will then chart the locations of the species identified in this profile, and merge those data with genetic findings to unravel the how’s and why’s of the lichens’ dispersal patterns and distributions.
Lichens are suitable subjects for this level of scrutiny, Allen says, in part because they are uniquely effective as barometers of environmental impacts. The project, she adds, has the potential to provide an invaluable look at how decades of resource extraction, residential and commercial development and, more recently, climate change, have affected Appalachia’s ecology.
“Lichens are super sensitive indicators, compared to other groups of organisms,” Allen says. “They respond to air pollution in a clear way, for example, which other groups of other organisms do not.”
The bigger picture, she adds, is how lichens serve to remind us that species both great and small are necessary to maintain our increasingly fragile biosphere.
“Ecosystems need biodiversity to function properly; functions which are essential to providing, say, clean air and water for us,” she says. “My hope is that, long-term, we find a way as a society to live more sustainably; that we work to preserve as much biodiversity as possible right now, even those species that are on the brink. Hopefully, in the future, we’ll create a little bit more amenable planet for these species, and we will be happy that we saved them when we had the chance.”