On this fine, first day of December 2013, Kelly Tindall and I were out and about in Milan, TN. Like most of you when outdoors, I was watching tree bark very closely and saw a tiny piece of lichen move with that characteristic ‘hidden insect’ motion used by stick insects and the like.
A bit of animated lichen
Now, I always enjoy a good nature blog post where the writer is able to name everything in the blog post no matter how obscure. I thought that my finding an animated bit of lichen on 1 December 2013 on the bark of Magnolia grandiflora was pretty cool. I knew I could not name the lichen species involved in the shelter, and figured the tiny larva was going to remain unknown. Still that insects (e.g. Cercopidae and Trichoptera) can build shelters is amazing and that these shelters can be camouflage also is a two birds/one stone sort of deal – and I thought this provided an opportunity to share that nugget of wonder. Another cool bit is that the lichens appear to remain alive, so the insect could actually be a dispersal mechanism for the lichen…
The insect was so tiny, but i wanted Kelly to see it move, so we ended up bringing it home. In the truck on the way home we played guess the larva. I was driving (a major handicap in this game) and Kelly quickly deduced it was Neuroptera
When the lichen bit is flipped over and you wait a bit you can see the insects face (from underneath).
and remembered that some Chrysopidae have debris carrying larvae. When we got home, I ran to the microscope to see how amazingly cool this insect is. The photo at left is taken holding my cell phone to the eyepiece of my microscope – it is what you get. It would be better if you could come over and see it, but the photo is easier to share. I tried to take a video of it moving under the microscope, but that was awful. Tomorrow I will put the insect out on a lichen covered tree.
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.
- Catapyrenium congestum a super-rare, super-awesome biological soil crust organism