Liking lichen: 3 reasons why the Northern varieties are awesome

Often overlooked (literally), lichens are both tough and astoundingly beautiful, says Yellowknife resident and lichen-lover Jeff Hollett.

Species in N.W.T. include 'fairy puke' and one that has survived in the vacuum of space

Want to go on an amazing wildlife safari right here in the Northwest Territories? Bet you're thinking polar bears, wolverines and caribou, right? I'm talking about creatures much tougher than a polar bear, far cuter than a baby caribou and more enigmatic than a wolverine (yes, I'm prone to hyperbole). I'm talking about lichens. 

If you're like most people, the word "lichen" probably brings to mind images of that stringy-hairy-fuzzy stuff that hangs from really old trees, or perhaps of that rock gunk that's as slippery as an eel when wet, and which has sent you tumbling tail over tea kettle on more than one occasion. All in all, not very impressive stuff.

If this is your perspective on lichens – and it is for many – then prepare to have your lichen world view turned upside down.

One of the main reasons that lichens are under-appreciated is because most of them are quite small, and look rather nondescript from several feet away; the distance from which they are most often seen.

To really appreciate lichens, you need to look at them up close. When you do that, you quickly see what crazy, exotic, beautiful little organisms they really are.

A cup lichen (genus Cladonia). (submitted by Jeff Hollett)

So, OK, lichens can be pretty, but what exactly are they, anyway?

Well, lichens are actually two different species living together as one organism. Each lichen is comprised of an alga (or sometimes cyanobacteria) and a fungus. The size-dominant partner in this marriage — the fungus — uses the algal partner for food, which the alga produces through photosynthesis.

I like to think of lichens as fungi that have converted to solar energy.

The lichen relationship doesn't only benefit the fungal partner, however. Filaments produced by the fungus surround the alga, protect it from the environment, and also trap moisture and nutrients that the alga needs for survival. From the alga's perspective, lichenization is kind of like living in a cozy house with indoor plumbing and a well- stocked fridge.

So why do I like lichens so much, and why should you check them out?

Lichen-liking reason #1: They're incredibly beautiful. Up close, lichen form and architecture is something to behold. From tiny, delicate mushroom-like forms to species that look like a cheese doodle lava field, the variety is endless.

They also come in a dazzling array of colours, including some of the most vibrant shades of red, orange and yellow you'll find anywhere in nature.

A very icky fairy puke lichen (Icmadophila ericetorum). (submitted by Jeff Hollett)

Lichen liking reason #2: They look more alien than aliens. Think duck-billed platypuses are the reigning kings of wildlife weirdness? Think again. Many lichens look like they belong in a Star Wars movie.

My favourite alien-y lichens are in the genus Cladonia, although the fairy puke lichen (Icmadophila ericetorum) deserves special mention for its alien grade ick factor. It really does look like puke; greenish puke covered in peach coloured chunks, to be exact.

Lichen liking reason #3: They're built space tough! Thanks to the folks at the International Space Station (ISS) we now know that some lichens are so resilient they can actually withstand extended periods in the cold vacuum of space.

Elegant orange sunburst lichens (Xanthoria elegans) just like this one survived being attached to the exterior of the International Space Station for a year and a half. (submitted by Jeff Hollett)

One of the species that scientists took with them to the ISS was the elegant orange sunburst lichen (Xanthoria elegans), a species quite common in the N.W.T. If X. elegans can survive the harsh conditions of space, it's no wonder it looks perfectly happy on an exposed rock face at -40C. Live long and prosper, little sunburst buddies!

Spring is here and your first lichen safari awaits. Lichens live all around you – on rocks, soil and trees – and the only tools you'll need are a magnifying glass, a camera, and, for identification purposes, access to Google or to a friendly lichen-knower. Look closely, you'll be glad you did!


Jeff Hollett is a nature enthusiast and amateur photographer who has lived in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut for much of the past 25 years. He currently resides in Yellowknife with his wife, Karen, and their dog, Spot.