Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge is a 16,000 acre federally protected area in the channeled scablands of Eastern Washington, a globally unique geological formation created 18,000 years by the cataclysmic Missoula Floods that tore deep crevices into the thick basalt bedrock leaving behind breathtaking patterns of columnar basalt, deep wetland sloughs, upland meadow steppe, ponderosa pine forest, and aspen communities.
While walking through the refuge it is easy to get distracted watching the migratory birds that make this area famous; but a keen eye will quickly notice the brightly colored creatures hanging from the trees, clinging to rocks, and growing on top of moss: lichen. Lichen are a type of symbiotic organism composed of a fungus, algae, and bacteria. They do not have roots — they obtain all their moisture and nutrients from the air! Their dependency on air for their survival makes them very vulnerable to changes in local climate, habitat, and air quality conditions — so when the composition of lichen in an area begins to change (some species die out while another set of species moves in) the lichen act as canaries in a mine, warning us that major biological changes are occurring within the habitat. The early warning signs given by lichen can alert us to pollution vectors (mining, industry, agriculture), climate change, and ecosystem health. Many national agencies around the world use lichens as biomonitors, including the United States Forest Service.
Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge is uniquely suited to monitor changes in the surrounding ecosystems – the refuge is located along the ecological boundary between the cold desert steppe of the Columbia Plateau, and the moist forests of the Northern Rockies ecosystem. The composition of lichen flora in such boundary areas, called ecotones, can give us insight into the shifting range and quality of these ecosystems as climate change continues to impact our planet. Early warning signs from lichens can give land managers more time with which to create mitigation and adaptation management strategies.