Out here in the intermountain desert, Biological Soil Crust is a big deal. It is so important that many of you have never heard of it. I am not a soil crust expert, but I am trying to learn. Lichens are a component of Biological Soil Crust. Lichens are bizarre little (or large) symbiotic things comprised of a lichen and cyanobacteria and/or green algae. I was surprised that in some rare plant work I was doing, lichens were also to be surveyed: BECAUSE THEY WERE ON THE RARE PLANT LIST!! I was also surprised because lichens are something wonderful and important. Additionally, I felt a hearty HOORAY! that they were being paid attention to!
Linneaus, our first taxonomist, published Systema Naturae and set us down the three kingdom path of Animal, Vegetable, and Mineral. Under Linnean taxomy; lichens are clearly plants. But in a modern taxonomy; Lichens are possibly comprised of members of three kingdoms, none of which are plants! A quick visit to the USDA plants database shows that indeed lichens are ‘plants’ at least for the USDA. This is actually a good thing: it means that botanists can be expected to work with lichens. (Show an entomologist a spider and they will quickly tell you it is not an insect, but many will help you anyway).
The rare plant survey we performed this August was grueling. One of our botanists had severe blister problems that weren’t going to heal no matter how much moleskin we used. The 100+ degree heat and off trail hiking had the bottoms of my feet beginning to separate from my foot (every step was ‘squishy’). On the last day, on the last transect, we were in slightly different habitat than we had been for the previous 4 days. Rattlesnakes were present and buzzing at me. I am not saying that rattlesnakes are bioindicators of cool places, but then again my experience says maybe they are. Towards the end of a long, difficult field project there is always the danger of ceasing to be a biologist and becoming a tired human in bad need of a bath, beer, and food (depending on the project, the order of needs may be different). I enjoy the bath, beer, and food, but I also enjoy my job.
In the last few hundred yards of over forty miles of transects I documented Catapyrenium congestum, a super-rare, soil crust lichen! I hope that you check out some of the links in this blog and go out and enjoy some lichens, soil crust, or soil crust lichens on your own.