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NatureSpeak Articles

Lichen life in Whistler? You Betcha!

Have you seen any blood-spattered beard, fairy puke, or antlered perfume around Whistler lately? If you have, you are one of the few to appreciate what are possibly the most overlooked organisms in the terrestrial world, lichens.

Lichen are often described as fungi that have discovered agriculture. Although classed as fungi, lichens are a symbiotic partnership between a fungus and an alga. The algae are photosynthesizers, and thus feed the fungus with protein, carbohydrates, and vitamins. The fungus provides the alga with water, minerals and protection from the elements.

The magic that results from this relationship is amazing. Ponder these capabilities. Lichens can remain dormant for long periods, survive scorching deserts and complete loss of body water, and some can withstand prolonged exposure to temperatures of -196 degrees C. Their complex chemistry produces more than 700 identified chemicals, some of which can break down rock into soil. Lichens can also absorb nitrogen from the air and transmute it into essential organic growth compounds, which in turn fertilize our local forest soils with as much as one half of their nitrogen content. Total magic!

Several hundred species of lichen inhabit our surrounding forests, including the common, light green Alectoria sarmentosa , or “witches hair”, which has been garnered by many a local tree skier for use as artificial dreadlocks when tucked under the edge of a helmet or toque. Traditional cultures in our area used this same lichen to decorate dance masks and as bandages, baby diapers, sanitary napkins, bedding fibre for mattresses, and absorbent fibre for wiping salmon.

Many lichens are now used as bio-indicators. Some species are the only organisms able to survive in areas of high radioactive contamination. The sensitivity of some lichens to impure air was first recognized in Europe in the 1860s. Lichens are now being used as bio-monitoring scales by scientists to quickly and cheaply assess levels of air toxins.

Local fauna certainly like our lichen. Hummingbirds use them for nest-building and camouflage. Common mergansers and many other birds also build with lichen. Numerous invertebrates, like spiders, moths, and slugs use it for habitat, camouflage, and/or food. And lichen provides carbohydrate-laden meals for local mountain goats, deer, moose, pikas, and rabbits. It's treasured in the diet of rodents such as voles and flying squirrels, two of the major staples of the critically-endangered Northern spotted owl. The Northern flying squirrel gathers horsehair (Bryoria) lichens to make warm winter bedding to nest in, and to provide a larder if necessary. Other large ungulates also eat horsehair lichen in winter, and it was widely consumed by traditional societies, with some thinking it a delicacy and others considering it famine food.

In spite of being tough, sensitive, successful, pioneering organisms (hey, like some local skiers I know), lichens are losing ground to ever increasing industrialization, and rapid habitat losses. Hopefully, with the addition of information being provided by this unique life form, we will soon come to a fuller realization of the impact our airborne pollutants have on the environment. In the meantime, look out for brilliant Pincushion orange, Devil's matchstick, or Peppered moon lichen, when you're heading out for some hikin' or bikin'.

Upcoming Events:

Oct. 13-14 th : Fungus Among Us Mushroom Festival. Join us for another great fungofest next week. Andy MacKinnon and Sharmin Gamiet will return to lead the mushroom talks and walks, and Ophrah Buckman will present another tasty cooking show. We’ve also added lichens to our program and have B.C.’s premier lichen expert, Trevor Goward, to introduce them to us.

• Friday, Oct. 13 th , 7:30 p.m.: Slide presentation at Millennium Place. Suggested donation: $8/9.99 (member/non-member of the Whistler Naturalists)..

• Saturday, Oct. 14 th , 9 a.m.: Meet outside MY Place for mushroom and lichen walks. $10/15.

• Saturday, Oct. 14 th , 1 p.m.: Cooking demonstration with Ophrah Buckman at Millennium Place.

Written by: Neil Brown


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