Explore is a philanthropic media organization

Learn To “Like” The Lichen

Post by Katie Billing of Polar Bears International

Churchill is known for its polar bears, arctic foxes, and snowy owls. However, there are other forms of life that are breathtaking to see in the wild. Yes, I am talking about those other guys we see growing on rocks which are not quite plants. These organisms are known as lichens! Why care about symbiotic lichens? Because lichens are AMAZING! They live in the tundra, so we know that they have several adaptations, which help them survive the harsh temperatures. These tolerant organisms form a relationship between a fungus and an alga. This relationship is crucial to surviving in the tundra because algae, cyanobacteria, and fungi would be unable to survive in these conditions.

In Churchill, most lichen is seen growing on rocks. The picture above is a lichen called “Bird Perch.” The lichen got its name by growing where birds constantly stand…and poop. Bird droppings have several nutrients that help the lichens grow. Some lichen are desiccation tolerant, meaning that they are resistant to drying out and only require one drop of water to survive. Talk about water conservation!

Lichens are also helpful to humans. Lichens provide oxygen, as well as take in pollutants from the atmosphere. Lichens are sensitive to toxins even though they are very resilient. They can be considered an indicator species for air quality. The USDA Forest Service uses lichens as biomonitors to assess ecological impacts of air pollutants. Biomonitoring is conducted by scientists who directly measure the amount of chemical substances taken in by lichen.

The majority of iconic species in Churchill are “white” mammals including our favorite polar bear. However, I think that there are more organisms that can be appreciated for living in what appears to be a desolate landscape. Lichens are just one of a few flora species that have learned to survive the cold temperatures. These species also serve as the base food source for many of the charismatic arctic animals we enjoy. The next time you admire wildlife, take a look at your feet. The rocks and plants may amaze you.

Want to learn more about lichens or sub-arctic plants? Check out the United States Forest Service and the Churchill Northern Studies Centre.