As It Happens

Behold the star-tipped reindeer — Canadians' top pick for a national lichen 

Canadians have voted on a national lichen, and they picked a spiky white caribou snack that looks like "little mounds of cauliflower."

This spiky white organism won the Canadian Museum of Nature's contest

Canadians chose the star-tipped reindeer lichen as their choice for a national lichen in an online vote. (Canadian Museum of Nature )
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Canadians have voted on a national lichen, and they picked a spiky white caribou snack that looks like "little mounds of cauliflower."

The star-tipped reindeer won the Canadian Museum of Nature's nationwide online contest with 27 per cent of 18,075 votes cast.

"Canada has spoken," Troy McMullin, the museum's lichenologist, told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"It's a great choice, largely because it's easy to identify and it's a spectacular species that grows mostly in the boreal and Arctic regions that dominate our country."

The museum launched a contest in February for Canadians to choose a national lichen in an effort to boost the profile of the more than 2,500 species that carpet the country.

"They're an important part of the biodiversity that occurs in the country, yet they're often not included in policies and conservation planning," McMullin said. 

"But they're no less important than the charismatic megafauna that we often focus on," he said, referring to large mammals such as bears and whales. 

A lichen is a unique organism that consists of a partnership between a fungus and the algae, or cyanobacteria, upon which it derives its energy. Because fungi are no longer categorized as plants, lichen are not either.

"These things are really important. They can tell us a lot about what's happening in the forest. They're particularly sensitive. They're like the canaries in the coal mine," McMullin said.

"So we shouldn't be overlooking these things because of their size."

Troy McMullin is a lichenologist with the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa. (Paul Sokoloff)

The star-tipped reindeer is a perfect choice for a national lichen, says McMullin, because it grows in every single province and territory, and is an important food source for caribou.

Chances are, if you've gone camping, you've come across it.

"This one's unique in that it creates these hemispherical mounds that almost look like little mounds of cauliflower," McMullin said. 

"I'm sure most Canadians have seen it when they get out of a canoe in the boreal forest and they step down onto some rock outcrops and they hear it crunch beneath their feet."

But there's no need to feel guilty if you've crushed it underfoot. That's what it's made for.

"That's actually how it reproduces," McMullin said. 

"The little spikes that are formed on it, when a caribou, let's say, steps on it, they'll break off as little fragments and they get stuck in the hair on the caribou and get carried to a new place."

The elegant sunburst lichen came in second place. (Troy McMullin)

The star-tipped reindeer beat out some colourful contenders, including the bright orange second-place elegant sunburst lichen at 20 per cent, and the string-like horsehair lichen at 19 per cent.

"What it showed is that people were really reading about lichens and understanding them, and they are voting based on more than just that bright, showy colour," McMullin said.

Still, the star-tipped reindeer isn't yet Canada's official national lichen. Only Parliament can declare it so. 

The museum plans to either petition Heritage Canada to adopt it as a national symbol, or work with an MP to introduce it as a private member's bill. 


Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Katie Geleff. 

 

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