Eastern Washington University’s Jessica Allen in July received more than $625,000 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to fund her part in the Central Appalachian Lichen Project, an investigation into how various factors, both natural and man-made, may have influenced the prevalence and distribution of the region’s lichen species.
Allen, an assistant professor of biology, says the project will help scientists leverage lichens’ role as uniquely effective barometers of environmental impacts and climate change.
“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.”
Working with her long-time research collaborator James Lendemer, an associate curator at The New York Botanical Garden who also received $625,000 for the project, Allen and her team will use GIS analysis and genetic sequencing to determine how Appalachia’s multitudinous local lichens— those odd hybrids of fungus and algae — have colonized or retreated from various habitats.
“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 project, EWU student researchers, along with members of the public who sign on to participate in what Allen has dubbed the “Great Appalachian Lichen BioBlitz,” will be deployed to photograph and share lichen-related observations on a digital platform called iNaturalist.
The core research group will then take a deeper dive into lichen occurrences by collecting and identifying “voucher specimens” from hundreds of sites throughout the region. These specimens will help the scientists capture detailed, in-depth site data and will provide material for future study.
Allen says she also hopes her research will help drive home the message that preserving species both great and small is crucial if we are 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.
To learn more about Allen’s work at EWU, please visit this feature from Eastern magazine’s Spring/Summer 2019 issue: https://www.ewu.edu/magazine/stories/for-the-love-of-lichen/ This fall, Yale University Press will release Allen and Lendemer’s new guidebook, Urban Lichens: A Field Guide for Northeastern North America: https://yalebooks.yale.edu/book/9780300252996/urban-lichens