How To Hunt For Lichens

Lichens grow practically everywhere, but they have been neglected by scientists for years, says James Lendemer, a lichenologist with New York Botanical Garden. Lendemer took Science Friday on a trip to the Tannersville Cranberry Bog in Pennsylvania to explore the diversity of lichens living there.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

I'm Ira Flatow, this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. Joining us now is Flora Lichtman. Hi, Flora.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Hi, Ira.

FLATOW: Hope I didn't offend you with that awful pun.

LICHTMAN: I liked it. Oh, are you kidding? It's my favorite, that pun.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: She's here with our Video Pick of the Week. What have you got for us this week?

LICHTMAN: This week the credit goes completely to our fabulous intern, Anna Rothschild, who takes us on a field trip to hunt for a very special kind of bounty, like...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: I have to guess?

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: The - what we're looking for in this trip is - are lichens. And I you've probably seen them before, because they're everywhere. They can grow on trees and rocks.

FLATOW: It's the stuff - yeah. It's like the stuff that you scrape a rock and you think it's part of the rock and it's colorful and it's the lichen.

LICHTMAN: The lichen. I mean, and they - they're often green and they kind of look like a mat. So they're found everywhere. But James Lendemer, who's a lichenologist, at the New York...

FLATOW: Ooh, a lichenologist.

LICHTMAN: I know, what a term, right - at the New York Botanical Garden, took us around and said that actually they've sort of been neglected by science.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

LICHTMAN: And that's partly because they're not just one thing, we learned on this trip. Lichen are actually three things.

FLATOW: Really?

LICHTMAN: They're - yes, they're a combination of fungi, algae and bacteria, working together. It's sort of like a, you know, a college co-op or something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: So one of them get's eaten and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: I didn't know that. I, you know, I thought a lichen is a lichen and -but it's actually a little conglomeration of...

LICHTMAN: Yeah, they all work together.

FLATOW: ...of life working together.

LICHTMAN: Apparently this is...

FLATOW: A neighborhood.

LICHTMAN: James said that the master of this lifestyle is the fungi.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

LICHTMAN: And they kind of farm out the algae. And so they - and he described it as sort of apples on a tree, where you plant the algae and then you harvest some of it for fuel, but then in exchange the fungi takes care of the algae, protects it from some UV rays.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

LICHTMAN: And the bacteria is recently discovered to be a part of this but no one knows what (unintelligible) does.

FLATOW: Wow. Wow. And so this fieldtrip takes us where? Where are we going?

LICHTMAN: We go to the Tannersville Cranberry Bog in Pennsylvania. But really, you can do lichen hunting in your own backyard. You know, you don't have to go anywhere very special. I looked - when I walked home from the subway in Brooklyn, New York - and I saw plenty of lichen on my walk home.

FLATOW: No kidding.

LICHTMAN: Yeah, even in New York.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Even in the streets of Brooklyn. And not only a tree grows there, but so does lichen.

LICHTMAN: Yeah, that's right. And so, part of what Anna does a great job in this video is telling you what a lichen is, because the big problem with these things is they're really variable. And so it's really easy to have false alarms.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

LICHTMAN: You know, sometimes fungi look like lichen, but they're not. So you should check out the video for some helpful tips on lichen identification.

FLATOW: So if you go to our website at sciencefriday.com, right there in our Video Pick of the Week spot on the left side, here's our video, it's our tour of lichen. And I was liking it already the first time I saw it.

LICHTMAN: And I was loving it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: And it'll be up there all weekend. And if you want to go lichen hunting, right, some tips on how to find the lichen in your backyard or on the streets of Brooklyn or...

LICHTMAN: Yeah.

FLATOW: ...San Francisco or wherever you live.

LICHTMAN: We'd love to see what you come up with. Maybe we can even convince James to ID a few species for us...

FLATOW: Wow.

LICHTMAN: ...if you...

FLATOW: Yeah. Let's crowd source this. If you have - go out, take your flip-cam or something, take a photo, send it to us at SCIENCE FRIDAY. We'll post...

LICHTMAN: We'll post it on the website and we'll tell you what it is. And you know, this is actually a kind of important point about lichen. Because they're these conglomeration of species and phyla and kingdom, people are discovering new lichen all the time. So maybe, you know, just maybe you'll see something new, or at least undescribed by science.

FLATOW: I remember the video you made about the food, identifying what was in the food. And these college kids or the high school kids...

LICHTMAN: They were high school kids.

FLATOW: ...they discovered a new species of cockroach while they were looking for...

LICHTMAN: Exactly, things are lurking everywhere.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: So send us your photos of your lichen and we'll have a professional look at them and maybe you - you could discover a new...

LICHTMAN: Yeah. Ira Flatodious.

FLATOW: Hey, Science Fridious or something like that. Thank you, Flora.

LICHTMAN: Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: All right. That's Flora Lichtman, our Video Pick of the Week. It's up on our website at sciencefriday.com.

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