Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A black lichen Placynthium nigrum

I am an amateur naturalist trying to discover everything living in my garden.

Spring is well and truly springing here in Oxfordshire. Soon animals and plants will be appearing in my garden faster than I can photograph them, let alone write about them. Whilst things are still moderately calm therefore, I'm seizing the moment to press on with my task of cataloguing my garden's lichens.

Quietly going about its business, photo 1 (click on photos to enlage) shows a black crustose lichen (for the uninitiated, see my explanation here) that decorates my garden wall in places. Photo 2 is a closeup (I've slightly digitally sharpened this image using software).

I'm no expert, and happy to be corrected, but from what I can tell from leafing through my copy of Lichens (Frank Doson), although there are numerous lichens with black fruiting bodies ('apothecia') on otherwise coloured 'backgrounds' ('thalli'), there are only a handful of mostly- or wholly-black crustose lichens to be found in Britain. A number are marine. Verrucaria maura, for example, is common on rocky shorelines where it is somtimes mistaken for oil pollution.

Of the mostly black, 'land-locked', lichens, I spent some time looking at the photos of Verrucaria nigrescens on the excellent 'UK Lichens' site. Looking closely however, this seems to have a more chocolate-brown thallus, albeit one peppered with many black 'perithecia' (see my definition here).

On balance therefore I'm tentatively identifying my lichen as Placynthium nigrum which my copy of Dobson describes as being "Very common, mainly on hard calcareous substrates throughout Britain. Often found on flat tombstones and cement".

A slight puzzle is that the photo in Dobson shows a more powdery ('coralloid') surface than is evident in my photo 2, although the book adds this lichen may be "sometimes smooth and cracked especially in polluted areas". Where I live is rural and I don't believe especially polluted. That said, some lichens are extraordinarily sensitive to even minute amounts of air pollution - whole books have been written on this topic. Anyhow this variability in texture gives me some added confidence in my identification.

Turning to my copy of Lichens (Oliver Gilbert, New Naturalist Library) a nice thing to discover was some growth-rate data for Placynthium nigrum. I learn that young patches expand their radius at 1.66mm/year and mature patches at 0.08mm/year. Lichenometry is the technique of dating old structures (churches, stone circles etc.) by studying their lichen populations - you can find an article here. Applying the data above to the approximately circular, 10mm-radius, patch in photo 2 ages my lichen at between 6- and 125-years old! Not the most exact figure I grant you, but fun to know.

As I commented in a recent posting, I am puzzled by the colours lichens adopt. Over the millenia animals have been driven to evolve their numerously-coloured fur coats, feathers and exoskeletons so as to optimally attract mates, hide from predators, advertise their venomous stings etc. Similarly my amateur's understanding is that plants are mostly green by virtue of the need to pack their leaves and stems with chlorophyll. Even various of the larger mushrooms have evolved specific colours, presumably to alert browsers to their poisonous nature or advertise their presence to 'pollinating' (botanists may wish to turn away at this point!) insects. Some even glow in the dark for this very purpose. But how it is that some lichens on my garden stonework gain advanatage by being coloured matt black, whilst others 'prefer' greyish/white and still others, bright yellow, I struggle to guess. Can anyone help?

Today's posting brings my garden lichen species-count to eight. I feels that I may be approaching completion with regard to this particular lifeform. Until, that is, I find another dozen species through more careful inspection of my garden's rocks and trees. Stood outside earlier today for example, when acquiring the photos above I was aware only of our black friend and of the grey-white patches which (though I haven't checked in detail) I'm assuming is our old friend Verrucaria. Sitting now at my computer screen however, staring at an enlarged version of the photo 1, I'm suddenly noticing the array of tiny orange blobs towards the centre of the image. Time to go back outside methinks!

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