Lichen It Already

A lichen is not a single organism, but made up of an “alga partner” and one ortwo “fungus partners.” 

With genuine apologies to Robert Burns.

These otherworldly lichens are appropriately found in the Mountains of the Moon, Uganda. Photograph by Paul Zahl, National Geographic

These otherworldly lichens are appropriately found in the Mountains of the Moon, Uganda.
Photograph by Paul Zahl, National Geographic

Their love can be a bit crustose
with areoles in bloom
Their love can produce thread-like string,
called hyphae, when they plume

Their love has colonized the Earth
from deserts to the ice
These extremophiles exist
on sand, on trees, on gneiss

Who could these star-crossed lovers be?
Why are they symbiotes?
They reproduce asexually
unlike us mammal folk

A fungus, a mycobiont,
is one part of the pair
It often lives all on its own:
itself, dead things, and air

The other love, photobiont
can turn light into food
The trick is photosynthesis
a skill that’s pretty shrewd

Photobionts can be algae
sometimes cyanobac
Some lucky fungi can have both
at once, and that’s a fact

But what is this? A third partner?
Another fungus, yeast?
This ‘silent partner’ does provide
some toxic chemical feasts

A trio caught between two worlds
not fungi, not algae
A composite organism
of one, or two, or three

United now, this smart trio
sets out to reproduce
Small spores or fragments of themselves
are set on winds, diffuse

Some reproduce by using spores
sped off to parts unknown
The fungi that do not find mates
are doomed to die alone

Soredia, isidia
are reproductive packs
In orange, or green, or yellow hues
or purple, white, or black

O foliose! O fruticose!
O squamulose, and more!
The fungi and the algae have
so many types in store

Animals use them for their nests
turkeys and hummingbirds
They’re almost all that reindeer eat
in winter, when they’re furred

People eat them as “famine food”
They’re not a tasty treat
They’re used in herbal remedies
in dyes, and perfumes sweet

So, once upon a time ago,
fungi, algae convince—
They fell in love, and they have been
lichen it ever since

 

This poem was originally written for BioBlitz. “Every year at BioBlitz, National Geographic and the U.S. National Park Service rally to get people young and old to explore the wild spaces around them during a whirlwind 24-hour search to identify every species they can find. In advance of our next event in Golden Gate National Recreation Area, March 28-29, 2014, we’re already exploring stories of the life and lands of northern California.Ecologically, lichens can grow almost anywhere, including the icy tundra, where trees and most plants are unable to survive. They also survive quite nicely in the Bay Area, and BioBlitzers are sure to see some.”

Let this poem introduce you to one of our favorite species, lichen. Ecologically, lichens can grow almost anywhere, including the icy tundra, where trees and most plants are unable to survive. They also survive quite nicely in the Bay Area, and BioBlitzers are sure to see some.”

4 responses to “Lichen It Already

  1. Pingback: Lichen: The Threesome | Nat Geo Education Blog·

  2. Pingback: Circle of Life | Nat Geo Education Blog·

  3. Pingback: It’s Finally Here—BioBlitz 2014! | Nat Geo Education Blog·

  4. I love the poems! I always remember by “algae and fungus took a lichen to each other.”

    I wish I could figure out how to share your poems with more people.

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