Let the vote begin! A group of scientists passionate about the importance of lichens in Canada is asking Canadians to vote on a proposed national species. Voters can choose from a list of seven candidates up until March 20 by visiting nature.ca/lichenvote.
The scientists make the case that lichens are diverse and ecologically important, with Canada having among the highest lichen biomass globally. Evocative names such as Horsehair Lichen, Elegant Sunburst Lichen, and Star-tipped Reindeer Lichen convey the diversity of these unique organisms— part fungi and part algae and/or cyanobacteria—that occupy important niches in the natural world.
“There are more than 2,500 species of lichens in Canada, and with this vote, we want to promote greater recognition of this unique group of organisms,” says Dr. Troy McMullin, research scientist and lichenologist with the Canadian Museum of Nature, who is facilitating the project. “The environments where lichens are most abundant—the boreal forest and arctic-alpine—cover most of Canada’s large land mass.”
Lichens are among the first colonizers of bare rock and prevent erosion by stabilizing soil. Some fix atmospheric nitrogen for the soil and are the main source of food for caribou in winter months. They provide food, shelter, and camouflage for other animals, and have been used for traditional medicines and dyes. They are also useful biological indicators of air quality.
“Lichens serve as excellent indicators of air pollution,” notes McMullin. “Specific species can be considered as ‘canaries in the coalmine’ since they are sensitive to atmospheric pollutants. Other species are excellent indicators of ecological integrity as many species only occur in environments that have remained undisturbed for long periods of time, such as old-growth forests.”
The seven lichens eligible for the vote met a number of criteria: being widespread in Canada and more common in Canada than in other countries, as well as for their ability to be recognized, their beauty, and their functions in nature. One or more scientists served as a champion for each lichen by providing a written description to make the case as a national species.
The initiative for a national lichen is part of a larger project McMullin has facilitated with lichen experts across the country to identify a proposed lichen species for each province and territory.
The voting form, which includes descriptions and photos of each lichen under consideration, can be found at nature.ca/lichenvote.
Brief summaries of the seven candidates (more detailed descriptions in the voting form):
Boreal Oakmoss Lichen (Evernia mesomorpha): common in virtually all forested environments across Canada, this conspicuous lichen hangs on the boles and branches of trees and is also common on wooden fence rails and posts. This species is tolerant of air pollution, so it commonly occurs in parks and woodlots near urban areas.
Common Freckle Pelt Lichen (Peltigera aphthosa): a large lichen that occurs across Canada, from coast to coast, and into the High Arctic. It blankets moss, soil, and low shrubs in exposed moist areas, but also tree bases and rocks in deeply shaded old-forest habitats. Nearly half of all known occurrences worldwide are in Canada.
Concentric Ring Lichen (Arctoparmelia centrifuga): a familiar sight on large boulders and rock outcrops in the Arctic and boreal regions of Canada, it is a closely attached, yellowish-green species that forms concentric rings. The abundance of the species and the comparative ease of culturing the fungal component from spores makes it a good candidate for a model species. It is distributed from the east to west coasts and throughout the Arctic.
Elegant Sunburst Lichen (Xanthoria elegans): a spectacular bright orange species that grows mostly on rocks and bones, but occasionally on soil and wood. It is most common on shoreline rocks throughout Canada and on bones and rocks in the Arctic. The presence of this species is used by hunters to locate nests and burrows.
Horsehair Lichen (Bryoria sp.): can be considered the defining lichen genus of the boreal forest, which in turn is the defining ecosystem of Canada as a whole. This lichen appears as intricate brown tresses festooning the branches of fir, spruce, and pine. Horsehair lichen was the basis of a crucial starvation food for some of Canada’s Indigenous peoples and remains an important forage item for flying squirrels, voles, caribou and, to varying degrees, ungulates as a group.
Star-tipped Reindeer Lichen (Cladonia stellaris): forms yellowish green, rounded, foam-like tufts that cover thousands of square kilometres of boreal woodland soil and also extend into the temperate parts of southern Canada. Abundant in every province and territory, this lichen is easily recognized because of the appearance of cauliflower-like heads. This lichen is a primary winter food for both wild and domesticated reindeer and caribou.
Yellow Map Lichen (Rhizocarpon geographicum): Widespread across Canada, it is readily recognizable and is closely associated with the Canadian Shield and mountain landscapes. It is one of the only crustose lichens (those that grow closely attached to their substrate) that most people know. Its common name is apt for a country with such a large geography and a history of cartography.
The scientists that nominated the lichens for the vote are: Alain Belliveau, Acadia University, Nova Scotia; Dr. Troy McMullin, and Dr. Irwin Brodo, Canadian Museum of Nature; Dr. Michele Piercey-Normore and Dr. Yolanda Wiersma, Memorial University, Newfoundland and Labrador; Dr. Teuvo Ahti, University of Helsinki, Finland; Trevor Goward, University of British Columbia, and Juliet Pendray, Victoria, British Columbia.