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Nature Reflections - September 29, 2005

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Nature Reflections

September 29, 2005

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Gray MerriamLegaleseGeneral information and opinion on legal topics by Rural Legal ServicesNature Reflectionsby Jean GriffinNight Skiesby Leo Enright

Nature Reflections:Pioneers

by Jean Griffin

Pioneers is a word usually used to recall our forebearers who colonized this country - those who traveled to strange unknown lands, and endured hardship and toil to establish a home under extremely difficult conditions.

But there are other ‘pioneers’ that still live around us and some of these are thought to be the oldest living organisms on earth. These are the lichens.


Lichens are pioneers on bare rock, desert sand, soil, wood, bones, metal and the living bark on trees - and can colonize almost any undisturbed area. One report tells of their growing on a plastic lens on an abandoned car. We can find them on older buildings, gravestones, stonewalls, and most plants or trees older than two years.

So often we overlook them, perhaps nothing more than a black smudge on a rock. But the variety, beauty, and colour of the various members of this class of life are awesome. Colours most often seen are greens, grays, oranges and yellows, but the real beauty of lichens is their intricate design. The shape may be three dimensional, perhaps an intricately-patterned filigree or lace work. Stop and take a closer look!

Another amazing thing about these organisms is that each is not a single species but a symbiotic association of fungi and algae (or even two algae). While algae have been found living alone, fungi have never been found in nature by themselves.

There is still much to be learned from studying lichens, but it has been discovered that they are able to tell us much about recent climate change, and studies are being done to use lichens with a known growth rate (which is very slow) to determine when the last ice age retreated. Some lichens grow only in the purest of atmosphere, and their absence in cities could be a warning of pollution.

Over the centuries native peoples have used lichens as dyes and medicines - many have antibiotic properties. Modern mankind still uses lichens in the perfume industry, and packing for florists. Nature makes use of lichens in a variety of ways. Caribou can smell lichen through the snow, and it may make up to 90% of the caribou winter diet. Northern Flying Squirrels have been known to make nests of one kind of lichen, and also use it as a part of their winter diet. Lichens can help Mountain Goats and Black-tailed Deer survive when snow covers other food. Fifty species of birds may use them in building nests, and Spruce Grouse and Wild Turkey are reported to eat lichens. Many small creatures use them for habitat and camouflage, such as Lacewing larvae, which may camouflage their sticky bodies with powdery lichen fragments and become almost invisible until they move.

Lichens - another marvel of nature.

Observations: Helm in Oconto, has had a Red Fox streak across his lawn, found Suillius americana and Lepiota naucina mushrooms, and has had a Grey Treefrog. Share your observations, call Jean at 268-2518, or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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