On Lichens

What are Lichens?

If you’ve always wanted to learn how to read a landscape, lichens are like words on a page – their patterns of diversity can tell you about climate (including nearly invisible microclimates), air quality, and habitat dynamics.

Lichens may seem passive compared to their more active fungal brethren, but lichens are storytellers – and stories are the basis of our realities, our behaviors, our perspectives.

Lichens are speakers of the stones, speakers of the forests, speakers of the desert soils, speakers of climate and of spatial time.

Lecanora sierrae, a ubiquitous lichen on granite and volcanic rocks in the Sierra Nevada mountains and Great Basin desert.
Cross section of a lichen - the green is the algae (the autotroph) and the clear/gray/white is the fungus (the heterotroph). Together they make their own little ecosystem, exchanging gases, nutrients, inspiration, and their special talents of being. (Candelaria concolor, photo by Jason Hollinger)

The lichen symbiosis is composed of a fungus (the heterotroph) and an algae and/or cyanobacteria (the autotroph). In the lichen, the autotroph absorbs photons from the sun and stores this energy in the chemical bonds of molecules.

In turn the fungus, the heterotroph, takes those molecules and uses the stored solar energy to form more molecules, creating a dizzying array of pigments, chemicals, and proteins.

We’re all like lichens – our right brain comes up with novel ideas inspired by the muses, imagination, the spark. And our left brain works with those ideas, building, transforming. Together, they create.

My Research Areas

My lichenological research interests revolve around the potential of using lichens as biomonitors of climate change, air quality, and habitat condition. Currently, the ecotone between the Mojave and Great Basin Desert and the Western North American alpine flora are my primary research areas.

Great Basin Lichens

Great Basin Lichens. So colorful, so diverse. Most people think that lichens are only found in rainforests, and indeed many species are limited to wet habitats. But desert lichens – they colorfully thrive.

Great Basin Lichens. So colorful, so diverse. Most people think that lichens are only found in rainforests, and indeed many species are limited to wet habitats. But desert lichens - they colorfully thrive..
Playa lichens: A novel flora (aka lichen community) that has not been documented elsewhere in the world, and 3 species new to science. Results to be published in 2023. Photo by Jason Hollinger.
Before coming to the Great Basin Desert, I thought there would be no landscape that could yoke me like the alpine does. But when I moved to Nevada in 2014 with Jason so that we could try to fill in a gaping hole in North American lichenology, the Great Basin Desert yoked my heart.
The year after moving to Reno, in an unexpected synchronicity, a forward thinking wildlife ecologist at the Nevada Bureau of Land Management got a grant for a three year study investigating the lichens on the ecotone of the Great Basin Desert and the Mojave Desert to understand how lichens are responding to climate change. He needed a lichenologist. He got two – myself and my partner, Jason Hollinger.
Our preliminary findings are more than remarkable. They are love. And they continue to unfold. So many species to describe. So little time. And playa lichens – a novel community of halophilic lichens that flourish in the ancient lake beds of salt – a most unexpected finding. Playa lichens publication expected in 2023.
A playa in central Nevada. These ancient lake beds and the mountains that contain them on each side - for an endless repitition of basin and range, basin and range -- were formed by a rift system. The land mass beneath the Great Basin lifted up, but the land was not flexible enough to bend, and instead miles long north-south cracks formed along the width of what's now known as Nevada. And then the plates between the cracks started to tilt a bit, and then a bit more, depending on where the geological weight was, and then rocks started tumbling and the plates tilted more and more, one side getting higher and higher, until the sides of these plates each towered over 5,000 feet or more above the basins, sometime going completely vertical and then tipping over to revolve around again. While the other side plummeted deep below. And the in-between places, the basins, these places filled with alluvium. And then water. And then little crustaceans and a few species plants and, of course, lichens. Playa lichens. Photo by Jason Hollinger.
Publications from this project:

Hollinger, J. and N. Noell. (2020) “New Reports of Great Basin Desert Lichens in California.” Bulletin of the California Lichen Society, 27:2.

N. Noell and J. Hollinger. (2019) ”The Lichen Flora of the Caliente Field Office Lincoln County, Nevada.” Report to the Nevada Bureau of Management, 144 pages.

Alpine Lichens

A lovely assemblage of alpine lichens -- over a dozen species here, can you point to them all?!

In the 1950s, lichenologist Henry .A. Imshaug (1925-2010) inventoried lichens at 91 alpine peaks across Western North America. But no one has gone back up to see if those alpine lichens have responded to climate change.

Have alpine species disappeared from some areas – have others shifted ranges into new locations? Can we untangle the impacts of air pollution from climate change? Can lichens be used as effective bioindicators of climate change in alpine regions?

Imshaug's inventory sties from Imshaug, H. 1957, "Alpine lichens of western United States and adjacent Canada" in The Bryologist.

Answering these questions is our goal. Jason and I have re-inventoried 12 of Imshaug’s original alpine sites in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California and western Nevada, along with two sites in the Washington Cascades, and one in the Intermountain Region. The project has proven to be bigger than we initially anticipated, so we are taking a more modular approach by focusing our efforts first on the California alpine. The California portion of this project was proudly supported by the California Lichen Society. Check out CALS here!

If you are looking to learn alpine lichens, Jason and I made a handy free Illustrated Guide to Alpine Lichens in the High Sierras, most alpine lichens have a circumpolar distribution, so even if you’re not in California, there’s a good chance there’s at least a little overlap with your alpine area.

Collection site at Kearsarge Pass, High Sierras, California, USA
Publications from the project:

Carter, O., B. Kropp, N. Noell, J. Hollinger, G. Baker, A. Tuttle, L. St. Clair and S.D. Leavitt. (2019) “A preliminary checklist of the lichens in Great Basin National Park, Nevada, USA.” Evansia, 36:2.

N. Noell and J. Hollinger. (2019) “Following in the footsteps of Henry Imshaug: Preliminary notes on California alpine lichens.” Bulletin of the California Lichen Society, 26:1.

Noell, N. and J. Hollinger. (2015) “Alpine Lichens and Climate Change on Wheeler Peak.” The Midden: The Resource Management Newsletter of Great Basin National Park, 15:1.