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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.