The other nick name for this bright orange crusty lichen is jewel lichen much easier to pronounce than its other name Xanthoria (pronounced zan-THOR-ee-aa).
A bewildering carpet of bursting colors in a dazzling array of reds, violets, scarlet, yellow and delicate shapes. This is the Arctic. See, the arctic tundra is not as most people think a colorless place -- White, white as far as your eye stretches in the winter and dull shades of brown and dusty green in the summertime. On the contrary, it is a colorful place.
The tulip of the North is none other than that grayish -- sometimes even sticky stuff -- you know from home as FUNGUS. Or actually, it is a type of fungus called LICHEN (pronounced LiKE-en).
Lichen range in size from an ant to an elephant -- less than 1 mm (4/100 in) to more than 3 m (10 ft).
Lichens are very hardy and can grow lots of places. No place is too cold, too dry or too hot for Lichens to grow. They have even survived at minus 460 degrees F (-273 C) -- absolute zero. As an example, the eye-catching orange ones you see on the picture above prefers to grow throughout the arctic on rocky surfaces and old bones that have been soiled by pikas, arctic squirrels and bird droppings!
Why? Well, small mammals and birds of course like to use rocks and anything else sticking up from the flat tundra as outlook post -- just like they use trees further South. Sometimes they just "have to go," and other times, they are marking their territory. As such over time, these spots become soaked in urine which is high in nitrogen and this particular lichen finds that to be perfect for growing on such nitrogen-enriched rocks.
The Polar Inuit of Northern Greenland calls them sunain anak, meaning the suns excrement!
Watch the thriller "Fungus Meets Algae" by clicking here.
Besides growing on rocks, lichen also settle on bark, bones, discarded antlers, old, metal artifacts and even dung!
With more than a 1,000s of its kind growing in North America, Lichen is the most dominant plant of the continent. One of the oldest and toughest plants on earth, this strange hardy plant is actually the number one player in the plant world with roughly 20,000 of its kind worldwide.
See, you can kind of think of the lichen as a living prison cell. Inside this tough adaptable plant structure lives an algae which is kind of prisoner of a fungus -- a relationship biologists call controlled parasitism. Most lichens are three-layered organisms, with an algae layer sandwiched between two layers of fungus. The chlorophyll-rich algae produces the food (sugar) for the fungus through photosynthesis.
Try this fun 1, 2, 3 on Lichens.
Click here to discover the many shapes of Lichens.
Though it may seem as an odd way of living it apparently works great. Some lichens are thousands of years old, having lived since the earliest days of human civilization. This actually makes lichen a great tool for scientists!
Scientists use lichens to estimate when glaciers disappeared! Lichens are colonizers, meaning they are always the first to move into new areas, and they do so fast.
As the glaciers recede, lichen move into the terrain almost instantly. Scientists have a very good idea of HOW fast the lichens grow and then can measure the size of this colonizer, and from there figure, the disappearance of glaciers -- In Canada, they found some lichen that had been there for more than 5,000 years!
Another good use of Lichens is as sensitive indicators of air quality. Lichen have no roots so they take all their moisture and nutritionist from the air and are therefore very sensitive to air pollution, especially automobile exhaust. In their early life stages, they do not tolerate lead; they also retain and register the effects of other heavy metals. For decades, scientists have monitored the health of lichens in order to track effects of acid rain. One place where it proved very helpful was Sweden.
Besides being pretty, lichen is of great importance in arctic and sub arctic ecosystems, being the chief winter food of reindeer, moose, and caribou. But also for humans it has turned out to be a food source -- "Arctic Salad" which you can actually eat. But remember to cook them first! If not you will probably get nausea and diarrhea as so many other explorers before you. Not because any of the species in the Arctic are poisonous, but most of them contain acids that should be boiled out. The most popular "salad" is a black leathery version growing on rocks called "rock tripe" (Umbilicaria). As you can imagine, it is not too tasty but if you are hungry enough....
Lichens are also dye sources; one called archil is used as a food-coloring agent and in chemistry to form litmus. Strips of paper impregnated with a blue or red litmus solution, are used to indicate the presence of an acid or a base in a solution; acids turn blue litmus red, and bases turn red litmus blue.
Learn all about Lichens by visiting Lichen Land.
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