Friday, September 17, 2010

A lichen: Lecidella elaeochroma

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

Once upon a time there was a large, upright apple tree in my garden. And then quite suddenly, one night, there wasn't!

What happened is a story most relevant for this blog...but one for another time. For today let me remark only that this calamity gave me an unprecedented opportunity to inspect my tree's upper branches for one of my favourite lifeforms - the lichens.

Photo 1 shows a lichen new for this blog (the grey smudge that is, the yellow is Xanthoria parientina I've blogged previously). Photo 2 shows a closeup of my lichen's areolate thallus (=cracked surface) and black, lecideine apothecia (= fruit bodies - see my artwork and explanation here).

Despite my fondness for lichens I am very far from being an expert. One problem facing the amateur is that many species look rather similar to the eye. Some are all but impossible to separate by anyone who does not happen to possess a forensic chemistry laboratory. (This is not a joke. It is not uncommon for the professionals to turn to e.g. chemical chromatography in pursuit of accurate identifications of lichens).

Fortunately there are a few 'tricks' available to the amateur. One is to observe your lichen under UV light. This is not as difficult as it sounds. In my case a battery-powered banknote reader from a 'pound store' (that's 'dollar shop', '100yen shop'... to those of you reading overseas) yielded the rather lovely result at the bottom of photo 2. The point is that had my lichen been the superficially similar Fuscidea cyathoides (picture available here), also occasionally found on wood, then UV light wouldn't produce the glow seen here. In the jargon, F. cyathoides is 'UV-' . By comparison, as I learnt from to my copy of Lichens (Dobson, Richmond Publ.) the common UK lichen Lecidella elaeochroma is 'UV+ orange' - clearly a good fit and my identification for today (as always I'm happy to be corrected).

I have mentioned previously a question that I have puzzled over regarding lichen: My (decidedly amateur) understanding of evolution has always been that, over time, it drives species towards adopting the optimal form for surviving in their environment. What has puzzled me is how then, it can be commonplace to see lichens with really quite dissimilar features occupying the same environmental niche. Inspect a few twigs on a tree and it's really not uncommon to find, side-by-side, both crustose (pancake-like) lichens, and, as here say, the bright yellow, foliose (=leafy) lichen X. parientina. To survive on wood, how can it be 'evolutionarily optimal' to be a bunch of bright yellow flakes, and optimal to be a grey pancake. Surely one ought to have 'won the argument'? It was satisfying recently therefore to come across a section in the book Introduction to Bryophytes (Vanderpooten and Goffinet, publ. Cambridge) that I think has given me the inkling of a solution to my confusion.

The book describes how some species of moss have become expert in seizing the opportuntity to colonise fleeting, virgin, environments. A newly appeared patch of burnt ground after a forest fire for example. Clearly being 'first moss on the scene' has the benefit you will enjoy the resources of your new home free from the pressure of competition. There is a price to pay for such a lifestyle however. To succeed at rapidly detecting newly emerged environments requires that you to put a great deal of your energies into sending out countless 'scouts' (a.k.a. spores) to explore your environs. By definition, if you're putting your energies into volume spore production, you are precisely not putting them into your own growth (producing lots of leaves etc.). Such 'fugitive mosses' therefore tend to be slight, quick-to-mature, normally annual plants, producing large numbers of small 20um spores.

Now 'fugitive' is not the only survival strategy amongst mosses. Enter the dominants. Dominants aim to out-compete other mosses for light and nutriants by growing faster and larger. This is a perfectly reasonable strategy, but again has its limitations. By investing a large proportion of their energy into the rapid growth of leaves etc. such mosses are left with little energy for the production of spores. Dominants then, will be less successful at rapidily discovering new areas, and tend to be larger, perennenial mosses with fewer spores. This is far from the complete story. As well as doimants and fugitives, the book above goes on to discuss the strategy of 'colonists', 'perennial stayers' and 'annual shuttles'. I have not found any freely available articles discussing similar issues for lichen (anyone?), but I think its not unreasoanble to suppose some similar ecology might hold for these fellow tree- and rock-dwellers.

All of which brings me back to my puzzle of how evolution can have a arrived at two such different forms (body shapes and colours) as optimal solutions for lichens living in the same place (a twig). I don't pretend a complete answer, but I feel I may have started to get an inkling of understanding. I think my confusion likely stems from woolly thinking on my part, namley, in erroniously imagining that evolution is about optimising a creature's form to fit a place. The more I've thought about the moss examples above however, the clearer it seems to me now that it is not 'body shape' that evolution is working to optimise, but rather the whole organism. That is, not merely its shape and colour, but rather the totality of its life cycle and survival strategy. Furthermore it is not sufficient to think of a lichen's 'environment' as being merely some unchanging point in space (the surface of a twig, say). This misses the very significant additional fact that our twig is subject to an annual cycle of dramatically changing seasons and that it itself is a growing, changing, transitory thing. At the risk of sounding too poetical, thinking of the lichens on my tree now I begin to get an image of a complex spaghetti of life histories and strategies at work. It is facile to try to ask whether 'yellow and flaky' is a 'better or worse' body shape for living on twigs than 'flat and grey'. Instead, each lichen will be following some complex survival strategy with multiple factors and tradeoffs. Viewed in this way, although two lichens have met on a twig in photo 1, viewed over extended time, the 'trajectory' of their lives is no doubt entirely different. The forms they have will be because these are the forms that best befit them to their individual, distinct, extended, life styles.

My great pleasure in researching this blog is that through it my view of my garden grows richer all the time. To my mind, no one has said it beter than Martin Luther

For in the true nature of things, if we rightly consider, every green tree is far more glorious than if it were made of gold and silver.

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