Friday, August 21, 2015

Looking for Lichens up Mount Washington

 I had the opportunity a couple weeks ago to travel with Dr. Brad Kropp from Utah State University to look for lichens up Mount Washington. He's doing a lichen inventory for Great Basin National Park.

What are lichens? They are pioneering organisms that are a mix of fungi and algae. I always learned it as "Freddy Fungi took a Lichen (Likin') to Alice Algae." Lichens can grow in soil, on rocks, and in trees, and last year some researchers found about 50 different kinds at the top of Wheeler Peak. This year Dr. Kropp is looking all over the park. One of the target areas was the limestone substrate of Mount Washington.

The weather forecast was for 70% chance of thunderstorms, so we didn't think we'd get much time on top of the mountain. During the morning the clouds sped over us.

I learned some basics about lichens. They come in many sizes and shapes. Some only grow a millimeter or two a year, so they can be hundreds or even thousands of years old.

Color, shape, and location are clues to what species of lichen it is. Many, though, have to be examined under a microscope.

In the photo below are endolithic lichens. Endolithic means "in the rock." Most of the lichen is in the rock, and just a little is showing. How cool is that?

Dr. Kropp scraped off lichens to take back to the lab to examine. He noticed that there were a lot fewer species on Mt. Washington than on Wheeler Peak.

Speaking of the two mountains, in the foreground is the white limestone of Mt. Washington, and in the background is the Prospect Mountain quartzite of Wheeler Peak. Also in the foreground is Holmgren's buckwheat (Eriogonum holmgreni), a plant endemic to the Snake Range. It's not found on Wheeler Peak, but is found from Pyramid Peak south. The clouds sped past, but no thunderstorms emerged.

It was a fascinating day looking at lichens, and I realized how much I had overlooked them in the past. Most likely over a hundred species live in the park, and it's only over the last year that they've been given much attention.

Over the next months Dr. Kropp will identify the different lichens and then make a guide to them.
 If you'd like to learn more about lichens, here are two interesting websites:  Rocky Mountain NP page and Yosemite NP page .

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