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Cladonia - British Soldier Lichen

Good evening, friends,


After the psychedelic find last week, things slowed down for me on the mushroom end. I checked a couple spots where I saw morels last year, and some spots where I thought they might grow, but no dice. This week a different fungus caught my eye, however. The British Soldier Lichen, Cladonia is a fungus that you might not have even realized was a fungus before today. I’ve written about lichen before, like the bushy beard lichen (Usnea strigosa), so we won’t delve fully into their fascinating biology but we will definitely harp on some of my favorites.


The red-capped lichen are growing amidst the moss on granite rock.
The red-capped lichen are growing amidst the moss on granite rock.

Fun Facts


I love lichen because there is so much life packed into an often mundane-looking organism (not today, they don’t look mundane today). They’re a microcosm for the interconnectedness of the world and ecology - in fact, lichen were the inspiration for Ernst Haeckel when he coined the term “ecology”. The organism is a combination of a fungus (the name of the primary fungus is the name we attribute to the lichen), an algae, and occasionally a cyanobacteria too. Fascinatingly, there can be different individuals of the primary fungus, the secondary fungus, the bacteria, and other microorganisms, like tardigrades, living in and on the lichen.


The vase shapes are the reproductive structures of the Cladonia. The rest of the organism exists as the smaller, frond-like structures at the base known as “squamules”
The vase shapes are the reproductive structures of the Cladonia. The rest of the organism exists as the smaller, frond-like structures at the base known as “squamules”

One study that I’m particularly drawn to, and one I mentioned when I presented on lichen at the NYMS Fungus Fest last October, is when scientists sent lichen to live in outer space for 18 months. This was part of an experiment to get a better idea on which earthly organisms might help seed life on Mars. The scientists collected lichen from the McMurdo Dry Valleys in Antarctica - what many consider to be the most Mars-like location on earth due to the cold, dry environment - and from high up in the Alps before letting them sit in a glass case outside the International Space Station for a year and a half.


Impressively, the lichen (Circinaria gyrosa) survived when brought back to earth and rehydrated. It should be noted that the algal partner was not photosynthesizing while in the vacuum of space so the lichen wouldn’t have been able to live out there indefinitely. It’s kind of like when you hold your breath under water for a long time and then finally get to the surface again and gasp for air - that’s what it was like for the lichen to come back down to earth.


Cladonia

Ecology

Cladonia lichen can be found on - get ready for this - all seven continents. That’s right, Antarctica, for the first time in MM history you’re in this. They’re quite difficult to get down to species, and there are dozens of red-capped Cladonia species in the northeast.


I like calling them british soldier lichens because they’re like little redcoat soldiers standing at attention. The preserve where I found them (Manitou Point Preserve) is right near where a chain was stretched across the Hudson River to prevent British soldiers from sailing to West Point which George Washington called, “the most important Post in America” at the time. Cladonia also can be found in the north woods in Central Park and probably near wherever you’re reading this.


Cladonia lichen are fruticose - they can grow while exposed to the air on all sides. The other two forms of lichen growth are crustose - like a crust - where they appear to be spray painted on to the substrate and foliose - foliage, leaf-like - where they have two sides, a top and bottom.


Cladonia

The cherry red, vase-shaped structures of the lichen are the apothecia - the reproductive organ of the fungal partner. These are genetically unique fungal spores that don’t carry the algal partner and won’t create new british soldiers, but the fungi may be able to find the algae on their own. Lichen also can produce soredia which are little packets of algae wrapped in fungi - basically like sending off little lichen to the world on their own.


It’s unclear whether the bright red color is a deterrent for insects and animals to stay away, or a beacon to lure critters to eat the apothecia and spread the fungal spores elsewhere.


The black dots at the rim of the vase are some other reproductive organ. They might be pycnidia - the asexual reproductive structure of the fungal partner (the spores released are genetic clones).
The black dots at the rim of the vase are some other reproductive organ. They might be pycnidia - the asexual reproductive structure of the fungal partner (the spores released are genetic clones).

Alright I have to go to a wedding this weekend (during morel season no less) but maybe I’ll find something to share for next week,


Aubrey


References:

  1. https://mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/field-guide/british-soldier-lichen

  2. https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/mcvmagazine/issues/2021/jul-aug/lichen.html

  3. de la Torre Noetzel R, Ortega García MV, Miller AZ, Bassy O, Granja C, Cubero B, Jordão L, Martínez Frías J, Rabbow E, Backhaus T, Ott S, García Sancho L, de Vera JP. Lichen Vitality After a Space Flight on Board the EXPOSE-R2 Facility Outside the International Space Station: Results of the Biology and Mars Experiment. Astrobiology. 2020 May;20(5):583-600. doi: 10.1089/ast.2018.1959. PMID: 32364796.

  4. https://depts.washington.edu/hortlib/book/entangled-life/

  5. https://cladoniarium.wordpress.com/2021/03/17/functional-traits-of-cladonia-disclose-complex-responses-to-habitat-features-and-climatic-change-in-acidic-dry-grasslands/

  6. https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/west-point/

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