Iowa’s Lost Lichens

By: Autumn Grzenia

On Thursday, February 17th, the Coe College Biology club brought Jim Colbert, retired Biology professor from Iowa State University, to spread awareness and inform students about Iowa’s lost lichens. 

“Lichens are not plants, but more so a type of fungi,” said Colbert. “Lichens are a symbiotic association between a fungus, which is a mycobiont, and a green alga or a cyanobacterium, which is a photobiont. Their genetic makeup is a lot more complex than that, but simply put, lichens are a combination of species.” 

Globally, there are about 20,000 identified lichen species. However, there have only been about 465 identified lichens in Iowa. Colbert and a group of his students found 43 different species of lichens that have not been on record since 1960. Those 43 species that Colbert and his students found makeup 9.2% of all the lichens that have ever been recorded in Iowa. 

The biggest threat to lichens have been the loss of habitat as humanity has industrialized, herbicide, introduced and invasive species, climate change, as well as air pollution. Lichens are a very tough species that can survive in drastic climates, but some species of lichens are very sensitive to air pollution.

Lichens can survive in a multitude of different environments. They can thrive in environments with high light intensities and dry terrain, but can also thrive in shady and damp terrains. They can even survive in cleared rock or soil, burned forests, and even retreating glaciers.

Lichens have even been exposed to space! Scientists harvested a certain type of lichen that was growing in Antarctica and then sent it aboard the international space station. Once in space, the lichens did not stay on the station, they were exposed to the vacuum of space and the full intensity of solar radiation for a year and a half. After that year and a half were up, scientists brought the lichens back into the station and gave them some water and they continued to grow. 

Lichens reproduced both sexually and asexually. The lichens that have a larger genetic makeup coming from fungi are able to reproduce sexually. Much like other mushrooms, lichens are able to produce spores that are then able to be carried through the wind and then need to land on the right type of alga to be able to actually reproduce another lichen. 

Just like everything else in the world, lichens play a role in the ecosystems. They provide a food source for some creatures, but they are also able to produce nitrogen for the environment. They have a special chemical makeup that allows them to “fix” nitrogen and put it back into the environment where other species are able to absorb the nitrogen.

“Lichens are more or less fungi that practice agriculture, they are really not so different from us or even corn,” said Colbert. 

All information was obtained from Colbert and his presentation.

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