The “Beard Lichen”, Mysteries, and Scientific Revolutions


A Beard Lichen, also known as Bryoria spp., at the Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge.

One of the most ubiquitous lichen around our parts is the lovely Beard Lichen. It’s also known as Bryoria which is the name of the fungus that is in the lichen symbiosis. You’ll see the greenish black beards hanging from the branches and tree trunks all around Mt. Spokane, over by Fishtrap Lake and Hog Canyon, and of course, at the Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge.

Identifying Bryoria

Getting down to Genus

A conifer covered in Alectoria sarmentosa and Bryoria spp. over on Mt. Spokane

Bryoria as a genus is pretty easy to identify. There are only a few look alike in our area: Pseudephebe pubescens, which grows on the north side of rocks while our Bryoria usually grows on trees; and then there’s the tiny, tufted, and stiff Nodobryoria abbreviata, which contrasts strongly with the usually pendant, pliable, and hairlike Bryoria. Up in the mountains you might run into Alectoria sarmentosa which is light green, while Bryoria are shades of brown and olive green, or Nodobryoria oregana which is a red beard like lichen. And that covers the look alikes around our region.

Getting down to species

Although distinguishing Bryoria from other look-a-likes takes less than a couple seconds usually without a hand lens, determining its identity at the species level is quite another ball game — oooh does it gets tricky! Why’s that?

K_red - norstictic acid in Bryoria

Norstictic acid: a K+red reaction in a Bryoria spp. as seen under light microscope at 1000x, I think. The Herbarium's scope is 1unit=10um as tested with micrometer - perfectly calibrated :)

Well, first off, lots of chemical tests are needed to differentiate between species, and since the branches of Bryoria are so tiny (often less than 1mm thick) you have to be careful not to use too much chemical or you risk diluting the reaction which can result in a false negative (thank goodness for dear friends like Jason Hollinger at Mushroom Observer who pointed out this concern to me). So to counter that issue I’ve resorted to using dissecting probes to apply K and KC (both using a 400x light microscope to look for norstictic acid crystal), C, and PPD. Using dissecting probes to apply chemical tests to Bryoria is a deep practice in patience: those tiny sections of Bryoria firmly stick to the probe by hydrogen bonds and attempting to get them released sometimes causes them to fly to indeterminable locations.

Secondly, finding the soredia for doing chemical tests can be difficult, basically because in some samples there are no soralia (the beds that contain soredia) to be found except just a couple empty soredia-less pits – which leaves one to guess about a) the color of the long-gone soredia, and b) whether the soredia could have tested positive or negative with the PPD test. But do remember, if you find empty soralia, be sure to jot down in your notes the shape of that there empty soralia, ideally with a drawing — it might be useful later on when you’re going through the keys. And yes, if you’re new to lichens, or mushrooms, you should be writing down all your observational notes before you go through a key to avoid any expectation bias.

Getting down and dirty at the EWU Herbarium

And thirdly, it can sometimes be difficult to differentiate between true pseudocyphellae and scars on the branches. Due to their pendant nature, Bryorias seem to crack and then heal alot, leaving scars that look like pseudocyphellae (or perhaps those really are pseudocyphellae?!).

Oh, and fourthly, one must be very very careful to comb through a sample because different species are often tangled together like lovers from different tribes.

Bryoria at the Refuge

The current list for the Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge lists only one species of Bryoria: B. fremontii also known as “Wila”, or “Edible Horsehair”, a starchy and abundant lichen that has been eaten by Native folks in our region for thousands of years.

The rare yellow apothecia on a Bryoria fremontii

Chemically, B. fremontii is a species that tests negative on all standard chemical tests (K, KC, C, and PPD). So you can imagine my excitement when I was getting down and dirty with six samples of Bryoria that I collected at the refuge and three different chemical types popped out – that means two new species get to be added to the list! If my identification are verified to be correct, the new additions include B. fuscescens and B. pseudofuscescens.  [Authors note: since writing this, there is a possibility that some of the B. fuscescens may actually be B. lanestris despite the obvious range inconsistencies, more on that slim possibility later]

Beyond adding species to lists, what got even more exciting is when I started growing through (yes, “growing through”, learning is a growing process) more samples of Bryoria from the refuge and found one sample that had yellow lecanorine apothecial discs, which is rare to find! And *and* in another sample I found yellow soredia, finally!

yellow soredia on a Bryoria fremontii - the soralia on this species are small and unusual.

Yes, simple things do excite me greatly – especially because those features helped to confirm that in both cases I’m dealing with B. fremontii despite the two samples seeming to have distinctly different morphologies. Earlier I was thinking that there was a “good chance” that both types were B. fremontii, but I just wasn’t sure — until I found those yellow soredia and apothecia, they brought my confidence level up to nearly 100% because B. fremontii is the only species in the genus with yellow soredia. This revelation helped me to see and feel with my fingers the major differences between what were two previously distinct species: B. tortuosa and B. fremontii – Edible Horsehair and Inedible Horsehair, respectively. Despite their major differences in color, texture, and size of main branches, they are now known to actually be the same species: Bryoria fremontii. If you non-lichen-nerds feel like you are spinning right now, and you’ve valiantly already made it this far into this blogpost, hold on cause it gets alot clearer (I hope!).

The Mystery of Edible and Inedible Horsehair

Map of Edible and Inedible Horsehair and First Nations Peoples; Courtesy of Millifolium, Wikipedia.

A few years ago a grad student out in Norway got a really neat idea: to test the genetics of Edible and Inedible Horsehair to see if they are the same species. And her results showed that indeed, they are the same fungal species and probably the same algal species too — except that this species has two different chemo-types: one has a high level of the toxic compound called vulpinic acid, whereas the other has a nearly absent level yeilding its use as a food for thousands of years. The presence of a high or nearly absent level of vulpinic acid results in two different morphotypes that are distinctly different by color, touch and taste. Lots of folks are probably saying, well yeah, sure, they’re two variants, but no, they are not — they are not known to intergrade, i.e. there aren’t hybrids between the two morphotypes. The lichens in question are two seemingly distinct species that have the same genetics. How can this be? How and why does such a phenomenon occur?

Enter Trevor Goward, one of my favorite lichenologists (along with Bruce Ryan!). In Goward’s  essay “Reassembly”, (the sixth essay in his series in the journal Evansia, “12 Essays on the Lichen Thallus“) he discusses this mystery at great depth… and the ideas presented are nothing short of fascinating and provocative, and as always, relating the lichen thallus to an aspect of human life:

…it helps to recall that lichens, though they look and behave like organisms, nevertheless operate as systems (Essay V). This means, for example, that it’s not quite right to say that lichens “grow.” As a matter of fact, plants and animals and fungal hyphae all grow; but lichen thalli “elaborate.” Lichens are more like a good conversation, each following its own internal logic, no two thalli coming out quite the same… ( p. 4)

Isn’t that just an awesome way of looking at lichen? Poetic, just beautiful. But, back to the topic at hand – the mystery of the Edible and Inedible Horsehair, and why they seem to act like distinctly different species.

Goward presents the “Thallus Reassembly Hypothesis” to explain the mystery, and this hypothesis also presents a more concise way of understanding how variants and subspecies might occur. But to sum the hypothesis up in a few sentences would be doing the concept injustice, so I erased those feeble attempts, instead I’ll just point you to his essay directly.

However, I will comment that it’s application can extend far beyond lichens, and even go so far as to help contemplate some recent groundbreaking genetic research.

Goward's Thallus reassembly hypothesis

Just a couple weeks ago, ecologists from University of Illinois presented findings demonstrating that the tissue from the leaves and roots of a black cottonwood tree have entirely different genome sequences even though they are part of the same individual (the entire genome was sequenced from these different tissue sections). But, and here’s the clincher, the leaves from different clones of black cottonwood were shown to have nearly the same genome sequence. The pattern is kinda like lichens turned on their head, as well as touches upon how the different environmental conditions (underground vs. above ground) yield significant changes in genome sequences within the same individual – not just within the same species! Sounds like our Edible and Inedible Horsehair mystery, doesn’t it?

To quote Brian Olds, one of the researchers, “This could change the classic paradigm that evolution only happens in a population rather than at an individual level.”

Scientific Revolutions

In the face of this cottonwood gene research, the entire field of epigenetics, and Goward’s contemplations on the lichen thallus, it seems as though the natural sciences are on the cusp of a radical scientific revolution. A paradigm shift where the rigidity of our understandings of genetics and evolution, and perhaps ecology too, are beginning to crumble as the fluid and dynamic nature of these systems becomes more and more evident. This would be akin to astronomers finally realizing that the earth is not the center of the universe even though the equations for the movement of the stars and planets moving around the earth had almost fit the observations perfectly, albeit with some bizarre mathematical contortions and many unanswered questions…

But maybe I’m going too far, and I see all this because I am still a young student in the natural sciences and have so much yet to learn. Or maybe, just maybe, a metaphorical veil really is being lifted and biological paradigms shifted — and here we stand right in the middle of a most fascinating era of reveries. Either way, it’s all exciting, that is for sure!

– Nastassja Noell

The Fracking Wars and Lichen

Shale "plays" around North America; the highlighted areas of this map grows each year as the U.S. Energy Information Administration updates the information.

As we all know, petroleum production in the United States, and the world, has hit a critical juncture. No, this post is not about peak oil — this post concerns the increase in the production of unconventional oil and gas resources and how lichens may be able to help protect our bioregion from the damaging effects of this industry. Unconventional petroleum resources include oil shales, gas shales, tight gas, coal bed methane, tar sands oil, and some others. Such reserves require intensive extraction processes that are much less profitable than conventional petroleum production, and are much more environmentally damaging. But first things first, let’s ask some basic questions.

First Questions: A) What is conventional petroleum production? Drill a hole in the ground and out comes gas and/or oil. B) What is unconventional petroleum production? Squeeze oil or gas out of materials such as sand or rock by either cooking up huge batches of sand and catching the oil that drips out, or cracking a bunch of rock and capturing the gas that seeps out. Yes, these processes require alot of energy input. That being said, you might ask: C) How is this kind of production even profitable? That my friend, is a good question; there’s *alot* of debate surrounding that topic, but we need not get into that here. What is important to note is that despite the decreased profit margin in this new industry, the U.S. government forecasts global annual increase of 4.9% a year in the unconventional fuels sector due to the increasing price of conventional oil.

Hydrofracking rig in Western Idaho. Idaho's natural gas "boom" was announced in spring 2011, a year prior to the announcement the BLM told me via email and FOIA documents that there was very little possibility of oil/gas production potential in Idaho; things sure can change fast.

Second Question: Why is unconventional petroleum production being discussed on a blog about lichens in the Channeled Scablands of Eastern Washington state? For three reasons: 1) unconventional petroleum production is creeping into our region; 2) lichens can help monitor the air pollution, and possibly help protect areas that currently have pristine air quality; 3) myself, the author of this blog, wanted to share an idea with my friends who are fighting against the destructive practices of the natural gas production industry: lichen citizen-science activities may be able to help monitor the impacts and highlight potential problems before health and ecological damage becomes irreversible.

Oil/Gas in Eastern Washington

USGS document concerning undiscovered oil and gas resources in Eastern Washington and Oregon (click image to download document)

In our region of the inland northwest, unconventional oil and gas production is creeping towards us relatively quickly. You probably know of someone who has run off to the “black gold rush” down in western Idaho, or the Rocky Mountain front in Montana, or Alberta, Canada, And you might know that under the thick basalt layer of central-eastern Washington and Oregon lies an incredibly large reserve of fuel, estimated at 2.4 trillion cubic feet oil and gas. The BLM states that there has been “a dramatic interest in oil and gas leases in Oregon and Washington in the past few years.”

Now that we understand that there is a potential of a black gold rush in our region, it’s good to know some proactive ways of protecting our bioregion. Monitoring the biological health of our region is one of those ways. Biomonitoring is a method of monitoring whereby an organism indicates what is happening to the ecosystem — whether the climate is getting drier or wetter, warmer or colder, or whether a certain pollutant is being deposited at levels that may be threatening to life in that area. Biomonitors are basically “canaries in the coal mine” and lichen are among the best of the biomonitors.

Lichen: Canaries in the coal mine

Lichens are regarded by scientists as one of the best biological indicators of airborne pollution because they are poikilohydric – i.e. they get all their nutrients and water from the air — thus they respond quickly to changes in air quality and climate.

Both of these lichen are the species Evernia prunastri, a macrolichen that becomes sick when subjected to eutrophic air pollution. The one on the left is healthy, the one on the right is from the Cheney Wetlands Trail near Turnbull NWR.

The responses of lichen to pollutants are variable. Some will have morphological variations, such as the macrolichen Evernia prunastri which looks severely ill in many areas around Spokane and the Western Plains. Others will show a necrosis which is either black or white, but is just general decay. And others will completely die out before we even can notice morphological changes — these locally extinct lichen will either be replaced by lichen that thrive in that type of pollution, or the area will turn into a “lichen desert.” Ominous, yes, if you see no lichen growing at all that is an indicator that the habitat or ecosystem in that area is most likely on a quick decline (make sure that you use a very strong magnifying glass before jumping to that conclusion, lichens are often very very small).

In order to know whether the lichen composition is changing, monitoring protocols have to be constructed, baseline surveys conducted, and then periodic surveys repeated. One of the great things about lichen monitoring programs is that basic lichen identification can be conducted with minimal tools and quickly taught to regular non-scientific folks — the first nation wide lichen survey was conducted by British schoolchildren in the 1970′s: it was called “Britain’s Mucky Air Map” and showed pristine and polluted air regions throughout the UK.

This is some of the investigative gear of one of the landowners fighting gas fracking out east. The situation has become like a battleground between residents and industry; many folks have abandoned their normal ways of life to protect their water, air, and future of their communities.

If schoolchildren can correctly survey lichen, surely any of us can! And we don’t need to rig up a homemade Giegercounter or get our hands on a remote controlled helicoptor video device for this monitoring project (yes, people are actually doing this out east, the situation is that desperate): at the most basic level all we need is a 10x loupe and a bit of time.

Besides being an inexpensive method for monitoring air quality, lichen monitoring is also great because baseline information on lichen composition has already been gathered in many forested areas of the country. The United States Forest Service has been conducting lichen surveys to monitor forest health — local flora lists can be found here.


To be brief and not get too deep into a bunch of scientific complexities, there are a few basic methods for monitoring air pollution with lichen: distribution, transplantation, and spectroscopy.

1) Distribution patterns we discussed above. Such studies can use methods outlined by the the Index of Atmospheric Purity (IAP), these methods already been developed and tested primarily in European countries, however there have been some issues with the accuracy of this method as outlined in this journal article.

2) Transplantation. A lichen is taken from a pristine area and placed in a suspect area and monitored over a period of time by taking pictures periodically. The extraction and transplant locations should be similar in terms of elevation, microclimate, and habitat. If the study is performed carefully and correctly (the assistance of a local lichenologist is highly recommended), such photographs could be a great mobilizing tool.

3) Spectroscopy. This one requires extensive lab equipment — we’re talking community college or university lab setups. Basically, a percentage of a pollutant in the thallus of the lichen is estimated at dry weight. It is important to note, however, that the processes for testing dry weight of lichen are still being standardized, so it seems best to set up a transect and sample lichen along a pollution gradient, i.e. collect lichen at given points along a line going from an area of clean air, to an area downwind from a compressor station, back to a clean area. Finding an area of “clean air” can surely be difficult in agricultural or urban areas or gas drilling regions, but you just want an area not affected by the compressor station (the unaffected area is your “control”) so that you can quantify the biological effects that compressor station is creating (the affected areas are your “variable”). Another method would be to test the dry weight ratio in a particular species over a period of time — but do be careful to make sure that you take into account that rainwater will leach pollutants from the lichen thallus, so perform collections at similar seasonal times.

Specific pollutant loads that can be tested

Dry weight studies usually focus on one species of lichen that has been found to be the best accumulator of a suspect pollutant, whether that be heavy metals, radionucleotides, flourides/chlorides, polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and others. Gases are not very easy to test for in lichen, so sorry folks, sulfur dioxide is going to be a hard one.

NYTimes investigative report on radiactivitive waste water from natural gas drilling polluting the municipal drinking water supplies out east.

Considering the map created by the New York Times showing radionucleotide pollution in the waterways throughout the northeast, it seems important to see how this translates into airborne pollution. Are we dealing with Fukushima type radiation floating around in the humid area of Pittsburgh? Maybe, maybe not. Our lichen friends could help us find out.

Can lichen tell us about the lead and mercury dissipating from the mini-refineries of the compressor stations? Yes indeed, the lichens can easily show these, too.


The participation and capacity of local schools and universities to direct such citizen science monitoring studies seems like a really great way to help ensure the validity, accuracy, and acceptance of such lichen bio-monitoring studies. There’s a great article in Green Teacher for teachers and professors who are interested in setting up these projects as part of their curriculum, you can read that here.

Last but not least

Lichen are fun, beautiful, and engaging. They live year round and don’t loose leaves during the winter, so monitoring parties can happen anytime of the year. And learning about the lichen in our local areas makes going out into the forest or the park way more interesting because lichen patterns create maps that indicate air quality, microclimates, and ecosystem health. With a little training and a keen eye, you’ll soon enough be able to read what they are saying about the areas we live in. And if something is going wrong you’ll be able to take action before the rest of the ecosystem suffers damage – and if something is going right, you’ll be able to watch your hometown recover and thrive again.

– Nastassja Noell


Biological monitoring: lichens as bioindicators of air pollution assessment: a review” by M.E. Conti and G. Cecchetti; Environmental Pollution, 2001. — this is the most useful resource I’ve found as it reviews much of the current research, methods, and shortcomings; it also includes a species list of different lichen and what pollutants they are good at indicating – the link above will give you a free .pdf version of this journal article.

Epiphytic lichens as biomonitors of airborne heavy metal pollution” by K.I.A. Kularatne and C.R. de Freitas. Environmental and Experimental Botany, 2012.

World to rely more on unconventional fuels: EIAWall Street Journal. May 25, 2010.

The Mad Gas Rush” Audubon Magazine. 2004.

Oil exploration along Rocky Mountain Front has residents curious and concerned” The Missoulian. March 1, 2012.

Idaho now open to natural gas fracking” by Nastassja Noell. The River Journal. July 7, 2011.

Putting Utah on a petroleum map” Geotimes. March 2007.

In search of the vernal pools, living rainbows

Fairy shrimp, an invertebrate that requires the changing conditions of vernal pools for their life cycle.. Photo courtesy of USGS.

Every spring and summer, seemingly ephemeral ecosystems called Vernal Pools emerge in our region. Rings of wildflowers delineate their boundaries and can have up to six or seven distinct zones of different flowers creating a phenomenon akin to a living rainbow. During the moist spring, fairy shrimp and other enigmatic freshwater fauna swim through these seasonal waterbodies, depositing their eggs in the grayish silty clay soil. In the heat of our arid summers, these pools completely dry up but the eggs are so adapted to these seasonal desert pools that they can lie dormant for years — until the next rainstorm.

A vernal pool is basically an entire ecosystem that is dependent on seasonal fluctuations – from winter precipitation which fills up the ponds, to the dry summers which pull up all the water into the atmosphere leaving large swaths of arid lands crusty and dry. And in these vernal pools we can find invertebrates and plants that are rare in our area, and, of course, lichens too.

Vernal Pool at Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge

Vernal Pool at Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge. Photo courtesy of Douglas King and the Nature Conservancy.

But where do we find these ecosystems? We are lucky, they are all over our region here in Eastern Washington. They range from the size of a puddle to a football field. The easiest way to find them is to keep an eye out for a certain set of plants, and to look within areas that have certain geologic features.

A botanical study by Curtis Björk and Peter Dunwiddie published in 2004 gives some comprehensive information that can be used to identify the location of vernal pools in our region.

Firstly, the vernal pools in Eastern Washington occur on basalt bedrock within the channels that were scoured by the Missoula Floods. Björk and Dunwiddle additionally state that they are often found near or amongst Mima Mounds, which are the bizarre and mysterious prairie mounds found at Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge, over near Hog Canyon, and in many prairie lands throughout the inland northwest.

Navarretia leucocephala, a tiny white flowering plant that we'll usually only find in vernal pools. Photo by Gary Monroe, USDA

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, we can distinguish a vernal pool from a seasonal wetland by three main criteria listed by Björk and Dunwiddle: 1) annuals are dominant and woody components like cattail and rush stems are minimal; 2) lack of surface salt deposits; 3) the presence of Plagiobothrys, Psilocarphus spp., and Navarretia leucocephala.

So now that we know what to look for, what did Björk and Dunwiddle find in their study? That our vernal pools are quite special and deserve alot more public attention. The species richness in the pools here is greater than the pools in California, and we have a very high density of vernal pools. In some areas, like the Swanson Lakes Wildlife Management Area, there are more than 200 vernal pools per square mile!

Björk and Dunwiddie also found that in the Spokane area the bryophytes associated with the vernal pools include Cratoneuron commutatum, C. filicinum, Riccia beyrichiana, R. cavernosa, Ricciocarpos natans, Fossombronia sp., and Sphaerocarpos texanus; these too create distinct zonation patterns.

Dermatocarpon miniatum. Photo by Jason Hollinger, MushroomObserver.

And lichens? Yes, our lichen friends are found in the vernal pools too! They are usually growing on the cobblestone basalt rocks found within the vernal pools, and these lichen include Dermatocarpon meiophyllizum, D. miniatum, Leptogium californicum, L. lichenoides, L. subaridum, and Aspicillia contorta.

Now that we’re equipped with the tools to know when we’re standing in the middle of a vernal pool – let’s go find them. As we all know here out in Spokane, 2012 has been another long cool spring, so right now is still a perfect time for searching out these magical pools.

– Nastassja Noell


Aspcillia contorta, a crustose lichen found in the vernal pool systems in E. Washington. Photo by Valter Jacinto, Encyclopedia of Life.

Floristics and distribution of Vernal Pools on the Columbia Plateau of Eastern Washington by C. Björk and P. Dunwiddie. Rhodora Volume 106 Number 928 p. 327-347 (2004).

Washington’s Vernal Pools The Nature Conservancy (May 2011).

Conservation Assessment for Dermatocarpon meiophyllizum USFS, BLM (2007).

Climate change and ephemeral pool ecosystems: Potholes and vernal pools as potential indicator systems by Tim B. Graham, USGS (1997).


What’s in a refuge? Management tour of Turnbull NWR

This past Saturday was the Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge’s first annual Spring Nature Festival – and it was pretty awesome! There was a glass box of mounted specimens of wild bees from the area, showcased by the West Plains Beekeepers, the Northeast Chapter of the Washington Native Plants Society was there, the Ice Age Floods Institute gave guided information tours on the natural history of the area, the Audubon Society brought folks on birding trips, and Mike Rule, the refuge’s wildlife biologist, brought me and a van load of folks on a management tour.

Native Bees found at the Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge. Many of these bees are obligate feeders of particular native wildflowers - are any of these bees suffering from the decrease in native flowers due to increasing suburbanization of this region?

Since I personally hate to be a bother and bop into Mike’s office or into his email box asking lots of questions, I took the tour as an opportunity to learn more about the different areas of the refuge that may be useful for future lichen studies. And boy did some interesting ideas sure pop up – from lichen presence in forested areas that have received burns and areas that are about to receive burns, to lichen distribution patterns in dense ponderosa pine forest versus more savanna like ponderosa pine communities. But first, lets get into a little bit of the history of the refuge, and then cover some of the restoration projects at the refuge.

History of the area: The Homesteaders

The Turnbull NWR sits in the eastern end of the Channeled Scablands – gosh I love that name, it makes this place sound really mysterious, which it is (check out the post about the Ice Age Floods talk by John Soennichsen). And the title is fitting when you consider who named it: homesteaders who were trying to eek out a way of living which was more conducive in the deep soils of the Kansas plains than the rocky terrain found out here. Our homesteaders saw the land as having been scraped up, leaving giant scabs, i.e. the columnar basalt.

The town of Cheney, back in the early 1915 - notice the old electric train on 2nd avenue that used to take commuters the 25 mile trip to downtown Spokane.

Rocky terrain does not bode well for plows, nor for putting fence posts in the ground, so its not surprising that this area was one of the last places in the state of Washington to be inhabited by the homesteaders. They came in droves on the newly built railroads back as late as the early 1900′s! And many homesteaders settled on the 16,000 acres that is now a national wildlife refuge.

“This area used to be pretty densely inhabited” Mike Rule explained as he drove a group of visitors through a non-public area of the refuge. When the refuge was established in 1937 there were 35 families on the refuge, and it took about 10 years for the refuge to purchase land from those families and make the refuge almost the same size it is today. These original land purchases came at a time when many families were looking to get out of farming there — a major drought was occurring, and the Great Depression was still wreaking major economic havoc.

The mark of an old homestead: lilac bushes. This one of over near where the squatter, Cyrus Turnbull, lived. Turnbll was one of the main providers of meat for the town of Cheney when it was first getting established.

The legacy of the homesteaders still remains on the refuge – lilac bushes and apple orchard mark the areas where homes used to be. And the wetlands themselves still retain the legacy, but it is not as obvious to an untrained eye: about 70% of the wetlands were drained, and the bottom of the wetlands made into crop and pasture land. Although the refuge managers have been working to restore these wetlands, the farms around the refuge still have their wetlands drained, and this has impacts – both ecologically for the migratory birds, and for the quality and levels of water at the refuge.

The Establishment of the Refuge: Sportsmen

A great Blue Heron flies over lower Turnbull Slough

In 1937, at the urging of sportsmen, the refuge was established. The landscape had changed so dramatically due to the homesteaders, and migratory bird patterns and presence were so impacted that wildfowl hunters were called into action and they urged the federal government to grant money for land purchases. This is not an uncommon history, sportsmen are responsible for forming many of our national wildlife refuges, including the first national wildlife refuge at Pelican Island. You can see a list of sportsmen and sportswomen and how they’ve contributed to saving the places that our wildlife friends call home, here.

No narrative accounts describing the refuge’s per-settlement landscape

“if we had interviews with folks describing what the landscape here used to be like, that’d be extremely helpful for what we’re doing” said Mike Rule when I asked him about historical narratives from the old homesteaders. “But as far as I know, there’s none that describe the land.”

The forest encroaching on the mima mounds located between upper and lower Turnbull Slough

And this loss of history is sad, because for the past month I keep looking at the mima mounds that seemingly are almost everywhere – from the BLM land surrounding Hog Canyon, to the east and west side of the refuge – and I keep wondering what those mounds were like before the homesteaders with their cattle grazing pushed the soil around. Perhaps the mounds were as distinct as the ones out near Olympia. But there’s evidence showing that the mounds were never as distinct, even before the settlers. Although some mounds were flattened for farming, the main impact on the mounds from grazing were the invasion of non-native plants. The mima mounds in the Puget Sound area suggest the possibility that aboriginal fire may have played a role in maintaining the mima mound prairie here, too, but this idea remains unsubstantiated beyond a few suggestions, such as the gradual disappearance of mima mounds into the forest.

Today, you can see the forest slowly eating the mounds here, mounds trapped in the forest, as is happening in the Mima Mounds National Area Preserve near Olympia, Washington. But the Olympia Mima Mounds were preserved from the encroaching forest by periodic fires set by the indigenous Salish tribes. It seems to me that similar kind of actions may have kept the prairie mounds here in Eastern Washington free of forest — and that the cessation of those prairie fires may be the cause of the encroaching ponderosa pine forest. But Rex Daubenmire, a professor Washington State University, has said that there’s little chance there was aboriginal fires here, so for now the case remains closed.

Restoration Projects on the Refuge

Its amazing how much we humans have changed our landscapes, but it’s also heartening to see that we can also restore the landscape to function somewhat similarly as it had in the past. And the managers at Turnbull are doing just that.

The roots of an upturned ponderosa pine show how shallow the soil is here at the refuge due to the thick basalt bedrock. Because these roots don't have a tap root and are so close to the surface, hot fires can cause the death of old growth trees, more frequent light fires are needed to protect the older growth communities.

The wetlands have been plugged, and the migratory bird populations have increased. In lower Turnbull Slough there are 29 heron nests and 12 cormorant nests. Although there are some issues of invasive species, including invasive plants like Cheat Grass and Reed Canary grass, and invasive fish including Pumpkin Seed and Brook Stickleback, the restoration of the wetlands continues to be a successful process.

“We’ve got a good handle on the wetlands,” said Mike Rule as he drove through the ponderosa pine forest. He explained that the forest restoration has been more tricky, ”The forest though, we still have a lot of work left on it.” but forest restoration is also a more recent goal, as the paradigm of forestry has changed quite dramatically over the past few decades.

These aspen would not be here if it wasn't for the fencing around them -- elk and beavers are stalling the restoration of aspen communities at the refuge.

Mike Rule and many other foresters and ecologists conclude that the dense, single aged stands of ponderosa Pine that dominate the refuge are a legacy of the homesteader’s logging activities, not a natural composition pattern of the native forest. Rule believes that the forest in this area was more of a ponderosa pine savanna, with meadow grasses in between clumps of ponderosa pines. And periodic fires played a role in minimizing the amount of pine duff (thusly allowing for more soil crust lichen to fix nitrogen :) ), helping the aspen stands regenerate, and burning out the young pine saplings so that more forbs and grasses for wildlife could flourish. A more open canopy would also allow for increased snowmelt in the winter, allowing wildlife more access to undercanopy growth.

As the refuge is reinstating the fire regimes, they have been keeping a close watch on the response of the forest creatures, including birds and rodents.

Forest restoration monitoring began in 1999, and so far there’s evidence that the restoration process has been successful: there’s been an increase in chipping sparrows and western bluebirds, both are indicators of a healthy forest ecosystem in our bioregion. Naturally, lichens would be great indicators as well, as lichens are considered among the best bioindicators of ecosystem health.

… Sites that would be interesting for lichen monitoring include:

1) N47.24-283 W117.34-616 : Left side of road in non-commercial thinning, right side of road commercial thinning in 2002, fire in 2009-2010. Logging used feller buncher, a three-wheel vehicle that cuts trees and puts them in basket reducing dragging and minimizing ground impact. Logging occurs when ground is frozen, or just slightly moist (which is smart because cryptogamic soil crusts have more cell damage when compacted if they dry than when they are slightly moist.

A management burn in a ponderosa pine community, burn happened just over a week ago at the beginning of May.

2) N47.24-156 W117.34-974 : Left side of road will be burnt in fall – would be interesting to see succession of lichen species,diversity and abundance pre to post-fire.

3) N47.23-785 W117.36-307 : Forest here was burned just a bit over a week ago, would add to understanding of lichen succession post-fire.

4) Head west on Salnave road to the area where there was a fire storm in 1991: here there are aspen stands have been regenerating very successfully, while on the refuge aspen stands are struggling due to elk – which is unfortunate because aspen stands have some of the most diversity in terms of bird population associations.

5) N47.24-290 W117.36-436 :Wetland restoration, increase in microclimate humidity as shown by lichen succession or changes in diversity and abundance?

Xanthoparmelia wyomingica

Xanthoparmelia wyomingcaOut at the Basaltic Mounds last Monday, I came across a lichen that got me pretty excited. It is the only macrolichen I have yet to find in the mima mounds areas, and after staring at micro-lichen so much recently (crustose), I was so happy to find it, especially as a huge patch. The patch was at least one meter square patch, an area composed primarily of bare soil and fist sized basaltic rocks, and located in the area between the basaltic mima mounds (inter-mound area).

a) A big ole patch of Xanthoparmelia wyomingca in the intermound area in the Basaltic Mima Mounds at Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge. b) Check out how well the rhizines have gathered up the soil, giving this terricolous lichen some security on windy days.

This foliose lichen was pretty well attached to the soil in certain parts, rhizines had dug into the soil, and they were not attached to rock. So I picked one up and brought it to the lab. After microscope work, chemical work, and using three different keys to ensure accuracy, I figured it out: Xanthoparmelia wyomingica. Although my collaborator Jessica Allen already added this species to the inventory list last year, identifying this species was really fun because it brought back a flood of memories. I remember helping her key it out while we were in Bruce McCune’s lab at Oregon State University, checking the identification with McCune’s extensive lichen specimen collection, and having McCune verify the ID. All very exciting. Jessica is the person who got me into lichen – before I met her I was all about fungi!

But, back to Xanthoparmelia wyominca — how do you know if you find it? Well, they grow on the top of soil, sometimes they detach from the soil and wander around and you’ll find one of them caught in the base of a shrub – a vagrant lichen these are called, but they are not the typical vagrant lichen like Xanthoparmelia chlorochroa.

Cross section of Xanthoparmelia wyomingca, look closely for the green algae photobiont layer.

Typical vagrant lichen will roll their margins when they dry up, this allows the photobiont (algae) to be protected from the sun. When suitable moisture occurs the margins will unroll, allowing the photobiont to receive light and photosynthesize. But X. wyomingca doesn’t curl in its margins as extensively as X. chlorochroa. So look for that.

The unbranched rhizines are pretty long 0.5-1.0 mm long

Also check the underside for color: blackish. The lobes will be pretty skinny along their length, less than 2mm, though they’ll be wider at the end and at the point where the lobe branches at the base. And especially check for the presence of rhizines – these rhizines are black, numerous, and 0.5-1.0 cm long and they are unbranched for the most part, although some seem to fuse together at the base and appear forked.

The lobes of X. wyomingica are less than 2mm wide, that measurement is critical for differentiating between different Xanthoparmelia species.

Also check for the photobiont, in this case it is green. And always do your chemical tests! And last but not least – take pictures of the process, take notes, and then put them up on Mushroom Observer so you can get feedback and make sure that your identification is correct!

Further Notes:

Recent research published last year indicates that the genus Xanthoparmelia is polyphyletic, meaning they do not come from the same ancestor and subsequently should not be part of the same genus classification. Additionally, the genetic testing of 18 different species found 21 species clusters, however these clusters do not neatly overlap with the 18 species groups, which has provocative implications.  The current species groupings are based on morphological traits and chemical composition, and assumes that species that have similar features should be grouped together phylogenetically (on the same tiny branch of the tree of life). The genetic data indicates that this assumption is false, that many of the traits were developed independently of each other (convergent evolution), and that there is a high level of variation of these traits within individuals of this species (S.D. Leavitt et al. 2011).


“Species delimitation in taxonomically difficult lichen-forming fungi: an example from morphologically and chemically diverse Xanthoparmelia (Parmeliaceae) in North America.” By S.D. Leavitt, L.A. Johnson, T. Goward, and L.L. St. Clair in Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. September 2011.

“A Key to Xanthoparmelia in North America, Extracted from the World Keys of Hale 1990″ by John W. Thomson in The Bryologist 1993.



The Basaltic Mima Mounds at Turnbull, invasive grasses, and cryptogamic soil crusts

Basalt mima mounds, Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge; May 7, 2012.

Last Monday I got a chance to go with an EWU grad student named Kristen out to an area where she is thinking about studying management of invasive grasses. The area that she is focusing on is another mima mound area at the refuge: the basaltic mima mounds. I couldn’t hold back from taking a trip out there with Kristen to look at the lichen in that area and learn from Kristen about the different grasses out there, particularly the invasive grasses.

Kristen’s M.S. research is focusing on the affects of different management and disturbance practices on invasive grasses. Her study involves lichens in a way because the cryptogamic soil crusts (lichens, mosses, fungi, cyanobacteria, algae) have been shown to play a role in keeping out the invasive plants while nurturing the seeds and fulfilling the needs of the native plants. Kristen will be altering her plots with fire, with pesticides, foot traffic, and other practices and seeing how these increase or decrease the native grass vegetation.

What lit up in my mind was the potential to see how these disturbances affect the composition of lichen, and if the lichen go through different stages of succession in response to different disturbances. That study would have to be a long term study but I could at least get a baseline assessment of the lichen distribution in those plots, and let someone else pick it up in a few years.

Xanthoparmelia wyomingca, growing on the soil in the inter-mound areas of the Basalt Mima Mounds

So we took a quick trip out there with her to get a feel for what’s going on out there, and what we found was pretty incredible: a huge patch of Xanthoparmelia wyomingca! I did not notice any Diploschistes like I did over in the alluvial mounds, which seems to indicate a change in soil quality, and I did learn quite alot of grasses, the primary ones of which are invasive. I’m going to briefly go over these here because that will help us identify crusts that are hosting invasive versus non-invasive grasses.

Kristen explains about the different invasive grass species that are taking over the praries at the refuge.

A quick peek at the Turnbull NWR Comprehensive Conservation Plan (see grass species list at bottom of page) shows that more than half the listed grass species are exotic species. It is important to note that exotic species are not necessarily invasive, but many of these grasses are in fact invalsive. These invasives include Poa bulbosa, Ventenata dubia, and Bromus tectorum (the infamous Cheatgrass).

Although none of the native grasses are listed as being endangered or threatened, it is very hard to predict what types of ecological affects may be happening due to the decrease in native plant abundance. The affects may be simple: certain insects may be favored by the changes in spring bloom time and quality, and this could impact the health of our regions forests and farms if these insects become pests. Or they may be complex, causing changes in migration patterns of certain birds and causing a ripple effect throughout North America from a seemingly minor causation factor. Or the effects could be very local, the grasses may be releasing toxins harmful to other plants and microbes (allelopathic chemicals), preventing the establishment of thick cryptogamic soil crusts, thus leading to major erosion issues that affect riparian ecosystems and cause the suspended silt in the water to rip up the tender gills of fish. This all sounds catastrophic, but the effects of loosing native organisms can have vast consequences on an entire ecosystem.

Poa bulbosa - an invasive grass at Turnbull

I like to think of an ecosystem as a net that is holding up all the soil and water and living creatures in an area, and its obviously a super strong net because its carrying trillions of tons of biomass. Creating this net are a bunch of threads, and each species is one of those threads and they each have numerous roles to play. And when one of the species is unable to function properly due to a competing invasive organism, or by environmental stressors, that little thread in the net snaps, and the ecosystem becomes a tiny bit weaker. But no fail, the surrounding threads can often figure out how to plug that hole and keep the ecological net intact. However, if these threads snap all over the place, so fast that the other creatures are unable to respond and repair, then the shear weight of the biomass will start snapping more threads. Worst case scenario is that all the soil and water and living creatures will fall into an unorganized massive mess on the floor, the net in tatters, and the humans too. So, although invasive grasses seem pretty harmless, its important to make sure that our native grasses and their roles in our local ecosystems aren’t compromised.

So, going back to lichen, there’ll be a post up soon going over the roles that lichen and cryptogamic soil crusts play in meadow steppe. Stay tuned!

List of grasses that have been found within the Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge; notice that more than half of these grasses are exotic, a major management issue. Source: Turnbull NWR Comprehensive Conservation Plan 2007.


Site #1: The Alluvial Mima Mounds

Cladonia spp. from alluvial mima mounds, Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge. may 2, 2012. Photo by Therese Addis.

Last Wednesday Therese and I headed out to our first site, the alluvial Mima Mounds. Pronounced Mee-mah Mounds, these are some of the most bizarre geological formations found in prairies around the world – Texas, China, and here at Turnbull too. The Mima Mounds, also called prairie or pimple mounds, are named after the mounds over near Olympia, Washington. When I first walked through the mounds last winter out on the west side of the state, I was shocked — the mounds over there are 8-12 feet tall, about the same in diameter, and they look like a giant permaculture or agricultural project. Perhaps that sounds like a ludicrous idea, but it sounds just as crazy as them being constructed by ancient giant gophers, and there are many of geologists and scientists who support that hypothesis, Note: check the resources list below for some popular science articles about the mima mounds. In sum, the mima mounds are mysterious, and Therese and I were excited to find out what lichen are living in the soil crusts out there. I knew that there wouldn’t be the Reindeer Moss kind of Cladonia lichen like on the mounds in Olympia, but exactly what would be there, neither of us were really too sure.

Alluvial Mima Mounds

Alluvial mima mounds, walking west towards Stubblefield Lake. May 2, 2012.

So what did we find? Well, at first there were many grasses as we walked west towards Stubblefield Lake. And the intermound areas were very filled in with soil making the mounds look less distinct than the typical mima mounds — the tops of the mounds only poked out about 3-4 feet, and the mounds were most visible due to the clump of dead woody forbs on the top of each mound. As we walked further into the refuge the density of the grasses decreased, small granite rocks increased, and the cryptogamic crusts became more abundant. At our trial location we plopped down our bags and began collecting some soil crusts, and a few rock crusts.

And what lichen did we find? Well, I’m still keying them out but here is a sneak peek:

Diploschistes spp.

The first one we found was a Diploschistes spp. which was very abundant. Therese’s first comment was that she would have thought that they were just some sort of poop, and they did look like poop because they are parasitic and grow over other lichens, and it looks like they may be parasites of mosses too.

We also found a Cladonia, a black crust with tiny apothecia, a very leprose lichen growing on a rock (Lepraria?), a possible Leptogium growing within moss, and others. And we found a couple possibly different species of squamulose lichen with no reproductive features, no pruina, no cephalodia, no distinctive features besides typical colors (brown or green top with white bottom) that we could see in the field. Or were we just looking at the primary thallus of a Cladonia, perhaps, not sure yet,

Checking out the cryptogamic soil crusts

Only a few rock crust lichen were collected, but we’ll be back on site next week after we key these 9 soil crusts out, so we’ll focus on rocks, and gather any additional soil crust lichen that we may have overlooked. We may also check to see if there is any difference in the  diversity and composition of different slopes of a mound – NESW sides. But I’m also super excited for the rock crusts. It’s so neat to me that endolithic lichen can actually grow within the rock matrix, in some cases up to 2mm deep. Intense critters! For more information of endolithic lichen, check out the Discussion of Lichen Biology: Chapter 4.


“Heaps of confusion”. By Beth Geiger. Earth, Aug98, Vol. 7 Issue 4, p34, 4p.

“Mystery of the Mima mounds”. By Daryl Gray. Current Science, 1/8/99, Vol. 84 Issue 9, p10, 2p

“Soil properties and microbial activity across a 500m elevation gradient in a semi-arid environment”, Soil Biology and Biochemistry. By Jeffrey L. Smith, Jonathan J. Halvorson, Harvey Bolton Jr.

“Engineering properties of Mima Mound soils from Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge, Eastern Washington”. by Toni Voile and Richard Orndorff from the Department of Geology at Eastern Washington University. Presented at the 2004 annual meeting of the Geological Society of America.

Spatial Modeling of Biological Soil Crusts to Support Rangeland Assessment and Monitoring” by Matthew A. Bowker, Jayne Belnap, and Mark E. Miller in Rangeland Ecology Management 59:519–529; September 2006.

Biological Soil Crusts: Ecology & Management” Technical Reference 1730-2 for the U.S. Department of the Interior (2001). By Jayne Belnap, Julie Hilty Kaltenecker, Roger Rosentreter, John Williams,Steve Leonard and David Eldridge.

Washington’s Channeled Scablands: A talk by author John Soennichsen and then some musings on lichen and climate change adaptation

There are few things in this world that can explain, in brief and simple terms, concepts that have broad implications. Lichens are one that I’ve found, and another is the Ice Age Floods that carved out the landscape of the Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge and much of Eastern Washington. Just as the lichen symbiosis can teach us that cooperation (not competition) is key for survival, the cataclysmic floods that created the awesome channeled scablands show us that our world can be drastically altered within just days due to relatively gradual changes in climate. (Note: Check out this blog in a couple weeks for my post about climate change in this region and how lichen can help us adapt).

Palouse River, looking south from Palouse Falls. Photo by Joe Miles, 2012.

Yes, the grand coulées, the prairie potholes, ripple marks, and giant fields of granite boulders of the inland northwest were created in a just a few short days, and only 18,000 years ago. A massive lake that was larger than Lake Erie and Lake Ontario combined had grown behind a huge ice dam that was half a mile high and over 23 miles long. And then one day the ice dam exploded. And a huge torrent of water ripped through the thick basalt bedrock that covered this once flat land. The topsoil was carried all the way out to the Willamette Valley in western Oregon. The water cut shears in the basalt creating cliffs that are in some cases more than 400 feet high and gouged deep shoreless waterways. This cataclysmic event formed what is considered the largest waterfall on earth – now called Dry Falls since no water flows through here anymore. The flood waters also created deep potholes, including Devils Well which extends all the way through the basalt. And the basalt here is deep, formed by fissures through which liquid basalt oozed over the landscape. Such deep potholes are not seen at the bottom of any large river known today. And the impacts of the flood cover an entire 2,000 square mile region: from the seemingly desert landscape of Eastern Washington that is oddly peppered with lush wetlands to the totally arid sagebrush steppe of central Washington.

The National Geological Ice Age Floods Trail. Map courtesy of the Ice Age Floods Institute.

This landscape is globally unique, but rather unknown and quite under-appreciated. But things are changing quickly these days. In 2009, the U.S. Congress gave authorization for the Ice Age Floods Trail, the first national geological trail, NOVA’s recently released documentary is bringing riveting cinematography of the area to international viewers (see embedded video below), and author John Soennichsen released last month his second book about the Ice Age Floods.

John Soennichsen, author of "Bretz's Flood" and "Washington's Channeled Scablands" giving talk at Eastern Washington University, April 26, 2012

In a talk Thursday night at Eastern Washington University, Soennichsen kicked off a major push by the Cheney chapter of the Ice Age Floods Institute to bring the floods and the awesome regional landscape further into the public dialogue. He is the author of Bretz’s Flood: The Remarkable Story of a Rebel Geologist and the World’s Greatest Flood (Sasquatch Books, 2008), five other books, and over 300 magazine articles. Last month his latest book went into print: Washington’s Channeled Scablands Guide (Mountaineers Books, 2012).

Soennichsen is the leading expert on the history of J. Harlen Bretz. He recounted that in 1923, when Bretz introduced the idea of a cataclysmic flood carving out the scablands, he was shunned like a scientific heretic. Geologists at the time were under the firm conviction of uniformitarianism: that all the major landscape features around us – the mountains, river valleys, plains — were created by gradual processes that take millenia, not quick processes reminiscent of those told in the biblical Genesis.

Dry Falls, 350ft tall remains of a waterfall with cliffs 3 miles wide. Photo courtesy of USGS.

Although Bretz was not supposing that God had created the massive flood, he didn’t know the source of the massive load of water that tore up the landscape, and thus Bretz’s idea was further shunned. But, as the years went by, geologists continued to explore the area and increasing amounts of evidence built for Bretz’s hypothesis. The sheared cliffs and other features showed that ancient rivers such as the Columbia could have not cut such formations in a gradual manner, nor could they have made the massive potholes and ripple marks found isolated in the arid badlands. And glaciers did not extend into the scablands, so glacial forces were ruled out. And the evidence of an ancient giant lake incompassing the city of Missoula, and much of Western Montana gave the source of the giant flood. In the 1950′s, a geologist who was out in the field in E. Washington doing surveys for the Columbia Water Project, sent a telegram to Bretz that said “we are now all catastrophics.” After 40 years Bretz’s theory was finally gaining validation. And today the only controversy that remains is the question of how many floods actually occurred – for the evidence supports that there was not just one flood, but repeated flood events of large magnitude.

Shoreline marks in the hills above Missoula, Montana. Photo courtesy of the USGS.

The floods are estimated to have occurred around 18,000-20,000 years ago, during the end of the Pleistocene era as the Earth was warming, and glaciers melting. And this is where the lessons for us, in our age of climate change. Whether or not you agree that industrial civilization has caused climate change, the evidence that our Earth’s climate is changing rapidly is abundant. And the Ice Age Floods that created our landscape show us the drastic effects that global warming can have.

Bitterroot Mountains and Lake Pend Oreille, where the ice dam broke. Photo courtesy of USGS.

A lot of folks, my grandma included, tell me, “I’m not worried about climate change, I won’t be here to see the effects.” Most folks are certain that the changes will be gradual. Coastal shorelines will gradually move inland, and we humans will gradually adapt. But the landscape of the channeled scablands suggests a different scenario. Indeed, climate change is gradually happening just like the water that grew the cracks in the ice dam over near Clark Fork, Idaho. But as the gradual changes accumulate, a critical mass is slowly built, and in a near instant an entire area can be completely transformed into an alien place.

Yes, it is a catastrophic scenario. And that’s what the geologists who dismissed Bretz for so long were reacting against, but the evidence is quite convincing that indeed it happened.

But this is not to say that we need to scramble and scream and panic. That will help nobody. But what we can do is examine our local situation and figure out how we can adapt to the coming changes. Like the Boy Scouts motto: “Be Prepared.”

Topographical map of the flood waters. Map courtesy of USGS.

And we can prepare, there’s evidence for that too. There were humans who lived here when the floods surged through this land – yes indeed. In order to survive these folks must have examined what was happening to the ice dam, predicted the flow of water, and moved their homes, horticulture projects, and foraging areas to upland sites. And that is what we can do – examine the local evidence of climate change, predict what is going to happen, and take the necessary steps to make sure that we humans, our communities, economies, and our ecosystems will successfully adapt to the coming changes.

That’s where lichens come in – they are one of the creatures with which we can see the metaphorical cracks in the ice dam. They are referred to as “canaries in the coal mine” because they can indicate changes in climate relatively rapidly, and they give us a measurement of how biological processes and our local biosphere are being affected by climate change.

Lichens on the columnar basalt clifss at Palouse Falls. Photo by Joe Miles.

Weather stations monitor air temperature, humidity, and precipitation at only a few sites, but lichens can help us translate that information into data that describes what is happening down on the ground, up in the trees, on the sides of both exposed and protected rocks, and this gives us a more accurate picture of what microclimates are actually changing, or not changing.

Lichens are also at the bottom of the food chain, and so can represent other organisms that are as well: if the base of the food chain decreases in size so does the structure above it, and the ecosystem can collapse rapidly like the ice dam or it can slowly adapt.

Lichens growing on trees in the Cheney wetlands. Photo by Jesse Taylor.

It is essential that our local ecosystems do not collapse, for the ecosystem supports our farmland, our waterways for fishing, our aquifer for drinking water, our forests for fuel and lumber.

By looking at the distribution of lichen species, and other bioindicators including mosses, we can begin to assess what changes are occurring before the ecosystem really feels the effects, For an ecosystem is a dynamic entity that is rather flexible in response to climate changes: but at a certain point the whole system can unravel. Kinda like when we are dancing the limbo, we can lean back farther and farther as the pole gets lower, and although some of us are more flexible than others, there is a point at which we all just collapse onto the ground. But, if we prepare for the limbo dance by increasing our flexibility, we have a better chance of making it under that pole. And its the same thing with preparing for the effects of climate change, if we can anticipate what may happen we can work towards increasing the resilience of our ecosystems and communities before the metaphorical ice dam breaks and there is nothing that can be done to prepare for it.

And that is part of what this lichen project at Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge is about – finding out how we can use lichens to monitor our local climate changes so that we, as a community, can create adaptation management plans with enough time to successfully implement and modify them.

Stay tuned, there’s so much to learn and respond to, and its all good: the coming years are not about horror, they’re about creative adaption and that is something our species is super good at.

Me and Carla catching some air time at Palouse Falls. Photo by Joe Miles.

Also, next week the local chapter of the Ice Age Floods will be sponsoring talks and a hike that will give us more of an understanding of the humans who were here during the time of the cataclysmic floods. Imagine watching the ice dam break from up in the Bitterroot mountains, relaxing while eating loaves of Bryoria lichen, roasted caribou meat… Wait, the food was totally different here at that time! What was growing out here back then? What did the people here eat… camels? Seriously, camels were out here? Let’s find out next week! Click here for more information on the schedule of events.

– Nastassja Noell


Ice Age Floods Institute – An educational non-profit that is dedicated to telling the story of the massive floods in our region and establishing the National Ice Age Floods Geological Trail. This website serves as the primary information hub for the media, the public, and all the chapters in Idaho, Montana, Washington, and Oregon.

USGS: Channelled Scablands – includes information about what the landscape was like prior to the floods (yes, there were camels here), and explains the formation of the basalt layer in our region.

Huge Floods – concerns the Ice Age Floods caused by ancient Lake Bonneville.

Explore the Scablands – PBS’s site with lots of information and multimedia presentations.

And here is Part 1 of NOVA’s awesome documentary, Mystery of the Megafloods (go to here for Part 2, here for Part 3, and here for Part 4):


How to identify a lichen: Part 1

Vulpicida canadensis: A funky neon yellow-green foliose lichen that grows in the forests of the Inland Northwest.

So you’re walking through the forest and you come across an amazing florescent green leafy thing – by golly, you say to yourself, this must be one of them lichen that girl in class is always talking about! Exactly. But how do identify it to species so you can impress that her and get her to go on a date with you? Identify that lichen, figure out its species name. Species names always gets the girls. But how do you figure out what the species of a lichen is? Read on fellow, read on.

Firstly, when you gather any lichen, be sure to note whether that lichen is growing on a rock, on a conifer or hardwood tree, or on a shrub. If it has fallen down from the canopy of a nearby tree it will be laying right dab in the center of your trail – those are my favorites.

Here's the 10x loupe I use for identifying lichen. I find it easier to carry everything I possibly may need on one lanyard around my neck.

Then, you’re going look at some of the macrofeatures of the lichen. If you got a 10x handlens, great, if not, you can still determine the major morphological group. A handlens is ideal for the steps in Part 2, a dissecting microscope for Part 3, and for Part 4 you’ll need a compound microscope with a 100x objective lens if possible, 40x at least.

But if you haven’t gotten your 10x loupe yet, and don’t have access to microscopes yet, you can at least figure out which major morphological group a lichen is, and knowing this is the critical first step towards identifying any lichen.

Parmelia sulcata. Is this Foliose or Fruticose? Hover your mouse over the photograph for the answer. Photo by James Lindsey.

Firstly, hold the lichen in your hand. Look at it. Ponder it. What does the thallus look like? (The thallus is the body of the lichen, and yes, as far as I know every lichen has a thallus.)

Does it have two sides, like a leaf? If yes, then it is a foliose lichen.

Or is it more like the branch of a tree, lacking any really distinction between sides? If yes, then it is a fruticose lichen.

Alectoria sarmentosa; is this foliose or fruticose? (Hover your mouse over it for the answer). Photo by Jason Hollinger.

But what if it is so small that it just looks like paint? Then it’s a crustose lichen.

And what about those ones that have fairy cup like things – what are those? Ah, now thats a tricky question – those lichen have two thalli: the primary thallus is the little tiny leaves that are close to the substrate (those are described as squamulose – a.k.a. tiny foliose) and then there is the secondary thallus which is the fairy cup (podetia) or matchstick (pseudopodetia) or christmas-wreath-like projection (also pseudopodetia).

Cladonia pyxidata: Squamules make up the primary thallus, the secondary thallus is a podetia.

Congratulations! You just figured out the most important distinction between different lichen: foliose, fruticose, crustose, or squamulose. What’s next? Read on to part 2.

Lecanora rupicola, a crustose lichen. Photo by Jason Hollinger.

Trial run of study at the Cheney wetlands

Letharia vulpina

Letharia vulpina: Note the isidia covering the skin (cortex) making it look quite stubbly. Photo by Jason Hollinger.

On Wednesday, Therese and I headed out to the Cheney wetlands to do a practice run on our procedures, and to test out the lichen collection card. We went over some of the basics of collection, such as how to see the difference between two species that look alot alike at first glance. such as Letharia columbiana and Letharia vulpina.

Letharia columbiana: Note the lack of isidia or soredia, and the smoother skin (cortex). Photo by Jason Hollinger.

We also discussed some of the difficulties with the abundance portion of the lichen collection card, since rating abundance in our study is a bit trickier than the Forest Service’s protocols because the FS’s substrates are limited to trees, while ours include all possible substrates including shrubs, soil, rocks, the base of trees, and rotting logs.

Lichen abundance rating as set by the U.S.F.S. Lichen program

So we decided that we will rate the abundance of a lichen species found on a substrate throughout the plot, since most lichen will be limited to that substrate anyways. In the case that a lichen species does have numerous substrates, we will jot that down and rate its abundance on these other substrates.

So the process now is as follows: first we collect the lichen paying particular attention to choose specimens that have reproductive parts, if possible. We jot down the GPS coordinates, elevation, height (height above soil line if on rock or tree), position (on top of or underneath a branch, top or side of rock, facing wetlands, etc), aspect (N,E,S,W). In order to rate abundance, after we collect the lichen we will do a walk around the plot to determine its abundance. We then will move onto the next lichen species. We are going to be working in tandem at least in the beginning, but perhaps we will continue to do this in the future for all the field work.

Lichen collection card, adapted from the U.S.F.S. lichen collecting protocols for 2011.

We also decided to include on our cards the number of different species found within a variable range around the lichen collected, such as within 6 inch radius on a rock. As we learn more of the crustose lichen, we will be able to jot down their names too, and that will be exciting.

As far as our collections at the Cheney wetlands, we made some great findings!

Firstly, we found an Evernia prunastri that is totally devastated by eutrophic air pollution, which is sad, but definately indicates that lichen may be very useful in helping to monitor the restoration of air quality in our area.

Devastated Evernia prunastri

The completely sorediated Evernia prunastri from the Cheney wetlands. Eutrophic air pollution is the most likely source causing the abundance of soredia (powdery balls that are asexual propagules of the lichen).

A healthy Evernia prunastri from a non-polluted area. Note how much smoother the skin is, the lack of soredia or isidia.

Since our study locations include sites that are along polluted and unpolluted inflows, we will be able to see the difference in air quality described by the lichen thallus of species such as Evernia prunastri. There are other species that also look odd, including a harder-than-usual-to-identify Hypogymnia. Morphological changes associated with eutrophic air pollution will comprise more of my readings this week to prepare myself for field and lab work, because if I had not serendipitously opened McCune and Geiser’s Macrolichens of the Pacific Northwest (Second Edition) to a page showing a morphological changes associated with eutrophic air pollution right as I was attempting to key this out, I would have had quite a tough time.

McCune and Geiser's book showing morphological changes associated with eutrophic air pollution.

Secondly, as far as great findings this past week: we collected only 12 samples, but (if my identifications are correct) we’ve already found two species that are not on the current Turnbull lichen inventory list! So we’ll be looking for these while we’re at the refuge. These include: Physcia tenella and Cladonia pocillum. I only had my phone camera the other day at the lab, so I’ll have to upload the Physcia and Cladonia up later, cause they were far too tiny to capture adequately with a tiny lens. But here are a few of the other macrolichen species we found over at the Cheney wetlands: Vulpicida canadensis, Cetraria chlorophylla, and Usnea hirta.

Usnea hirta: a fruticose lichen found at the Cheney wetlands.

Vulpicida canadensis, a foliose lichen collected at the Cheney wetlands.

Cetraria chlorophylla, also from the Cheney wetlands. (Its the dark brown foliose lichen near the center-top of the branch)

All in all, last week was great working in Dr. O’Quinn’s lab. Finding two species that are not on the current inventory for the refuge is promising. Such results from a brief trial support our hypothesis that we will be able to add many more species to the refuge’s lichen inventory by performing targeted surveys, and I’m excited to see what we find out when we plug our data into the U.S. Forest Service’s lichen community gradient models.

For those readers interested in lists of macro lichen found in surrounding forested areas, check out the lichen species list the U.S.F.S. has created for the Colville National Forest here.