Vote for a national lichen! The seven candidates were selected by a panel of lichen experts, facilitated by Dr. Troy McMullin, lichenologist with the Canadian Museum of Nature. The lichens were chosen for being widespread in Canada and more common in Canada than in other countries, as well as for their beauty, their ability to be recognized, and their ecological functions. So, learn about Canada’s lichen diversity then have your say! Voting closes March 20, 2020.
Introduction to Lichens
Lichens are diverse and ecologically important. They are symbiotic organisms composed of fungi and one or more photosynthetic partners (usually algae, sometimes cyanobacteria, and occasionally both). Lichens occur in a wide array of colours, shapes, and sizes and they live in virtually every terrestrial environment worldwide.
In Canada, lichens are particularly rich and abundant. There are more than 2,500 species and the environments where they are most abundant—the boreal forest and arctic-alpine—cover most of Canada’s large land mass. Canada is a country with perhaps the highest lichen biomass globally.
Lichens are included in the diet of numerous species of invertebrates and vertebrates, including serving as the primary food source for caribou in winter months. Many species also use lichens as nesting material and for camouflage. Other important ecological functions include erosion control and nutrient cycling, particularly nitrogen fixation.
Human use of lichens is widespread. They are used as medicine, poison, dyes, and in scientific studies, particularly as indicators of air quality and ecological integrity as many species only occur in environments that have remained undisturbed for long periods of time, such as old-growth forests.
This important, beautiful, and ubiquitous group is often overlooked and underappreciated, which is why we are promoting greater recognition of lichens in Canada by proposing a national species.
Please read about the species that have been nominated by Canada’s lichen enthusiasts and select the one you think will make the best representative of this unique group in Canada.
Thank you for participating.
Dr. Troy McMullin
Research Scientist, Lichenology
Canadian Museum of Nature
Meet the Candidates
Boreal Oakmoss Lichen (Evernia mesomorpha)
Boreal oakmoss lichen is common in virtually all forested environments across Canada. Although it occurs in Asia, Europe and the United States, it is much less frequent in those regions. This conspicuous lichen hangs on the boles and branches of trees and is also common on wooden fence rails and posts. It is superficially similar to beard lichens (Usnea spp.), containing the same chemical (usnic acid), which gives it its light yellow-green colour, but boreal oakmoss has branches that are wider, more ridged, and they lack a dense central cord.
This species is tolerant of air pollution, so it commonly occurs in parks and woodlots near urban areas. It is a relatively large and distinctive lichen that will be easily spotted by Canadians in suitable habitats east of the Rockies. Moreover, it is more abundant in Canada than anywhere else. Boreal oakmoss warrants consideration as an official symbol for Canada.
Common Freckle Pelt (Peltigera aphthosa)
Common freckle pelt is a large lichen occurring across Canada, from coast to coast, and into the High Arctic. It blankets moss, soil, and low shrubs in exposed moist areas, but also tree bases and rocks in deeply shaded old-forest habitats. This species can cover several meters and varies from a very pale grey-green or brown-green when dry to a deep green when moist. Nearly half of all known occurrences worldwide are in Canada.
An interesting feature of common freckle pelt is that there are at least three Kingdoms in its symbiosis: the fungus (Fungi), which constitutes most of the lichen’s mass, the green photosynthesizing alga (Coccomyxa)(Protista), which gives this species its green colour, and the photosynthesizing cyanobacterium (Nostoc) (Monera), which appears as dark “freckles” (cephalodia) on the lichen’s upper surface. The cephalodia can fix nitrogen into a biologically useful form (ammonium, NH4), which can benefit the nitrogen-deprived ecosystems where they occur.
This species is large and conspicuous, ecologically important and widespread in Canada and would make an exceptional national symbol.
Concentric Ring Lichen (Arctoparmelia centrifuga)
Concentric ring lichen is a familiar sight on large boulders and rock outcrops in the Arctic and boreal regions of Canada. It is a closely attached, yellowish-green (from usnic acid) species that forms concentric rings that are brighter in colour near the actively growing margins than in the center. After fruiting-bodies (apothecia) form near the older central part of the body (thallus) and release their spores, the central part dies and decays making way for new rings to be initiated in the center. It is highly fertile, often with many apothecia and spores that are easy to germinate in culture.
This species is scientifically intriguing because of the chemical compounds it contains and because it can be easily manipulated in the lab. It sometimes contains the chemical that makes it yellow green and sometimes doesn’t, and is one of the few lichens that make the effort to contain two different compounds in its outer surface (atranorin and usnic acid). The abundance of the species and the comparative ease of culturing the fungal component from spores makes it a very good candidate for a model species. Lastly, the concentric ring lichen is distributed from the east to west coasts and throughout the Arctic, and should be Canada’s national lichen.
Elegant Sunburst Lichen (Xanthoria elegans)
Elegant sunburst lichen is a conspicuous and spectacular bright orange species that grows mostly on rocks and bones, but also rarely occurs on soil and wood. It is most common on shoreline rocks throughout Canada and on bones and rocks in the Arctic. It prefers open sites that are nutrient rich, usually from excrement from birds or other animals. The presence of this species is used by hunters to locate nests and burrows.
This iconic species occurs commonly in all parts of Canada, from southern Ontario to the High Arctic and from British Columbia to Newfoundland. It is an unmistakable beacon that draws observers into the world of small but important organisms around us. Elegant sunburst lichen is an ideal representative of the Canadian lichen biota.
Horsehair Lichen (Bryoria)
In North America, horsehair lichen is predominantly a Canadian genus. In a sense, these conspicuous lichens unite Canada east and west and, with the help from tundra horsehair lichen (Bryoria nitidula), also north and south. More particularly, horsehair lichen, among the epiphytes, is THE defining lichen genus of the boreal forest, which in turn is THE defining ecosystem of Canada as a whole. In the northlands they occur in numbers unimaginable, festooning the branches of fir, spruce, and pine, hanging like little prayer flags and blowing in the wind: a blessing to all Canadians.
Less whimsically, horsehair lichen was the basis of a crucial starvation food for some of Canada’s indigenous peoples and remains an important forage item for flying squirrels, voles, caribou and, to varying degrees, ungulates as a group.
Horsehair lichen is also the genus that first hinted at a higher-than-expected level of complexity in the lichen consortium of disparate organisms. In this way, they underscore the point that sustaining a unified ecosystem – or nation for that matter – takes more than meets the eye—a lesson we must never lose sight of and, indeed, will need constant reminding of in the times ahead. This last point argues for the value in recognizing the lichen consortium as emblematic of the Canadian identity which, after all, is synonymous with multicultural diversity. As for including a genus of scraggly hair lichens as a candidate for a Canadian emblem, it’s well past time we all began to go a little deeper than surface colour or elegance of form. These intricate brown tresses – nowhere more diverse than within our nation’s borders – are pure Canadiana and, for this reason, just the thing for a national symbol.
Star-tipped Reindeer Lichen (Cladonia stellaris)
The star-tipped reindeer lichen forms yellowish green, rounded, foam-like tufts that not only cover thousands of square kilometres of boreal woodland soil from coast to coast to coast, but also extend into the temperate parts of southern Canada in certain habitats. It is abundant in every province and territory and has a very distinctive appearance; it is easily recognized by the general public because of the appearance of cauliflower-like heads. Star-tipped reindeer lichen is the slowest growing of the reindeer lichens, and, as a result, the large ground cover in an area suggests a mature and stable habitat. The representation of maturity and stability as well as the regularity of the branching pattern is appealing for a national lichen.
Although Cladonia rangiferina is the nominal true reindeer lichen (Rangifer is the scientific name of reindeer and caribou), star-tipped reindeer lichen is more important as winter food for both wild and domesticated reindeer and caribou. It is also used in the floral industry as a decoration and as miniature trees and shrubs in architectural models and miniature railroad layouts. The critical role of this species in the boreal ecosystem, the dominant landscape of Canada, surely makes it the most important lichen in Canada.
Yellow Map Lichen (Rhizocarpon geographicum)
Yellow map lichen is widespread across Canada. It is readily recognizable and is closely associated with the Canadian Shield and mountain landscapes that dominate much of the country—some of the more iconic Canadian landscapes in the minds of people around the world. It is one of the only crustose lichens (those that grow closely attached to their substrate) that most people know. Its common name is apt for a country with such a large geography and a strong history of cartography and map-based science (keep in mind that GIS was invented by a Canadian). Therefore, this widespread and eye-catching species is an appropriate Canadian emblem.
Comment from Murray: I think this is a wonderful way to get people to think about a part of our world that escapes most people’s notice. I spent a lot time time thinking about this. While the Elegant Sunburst Lichen is very attractive and I love the way it looks on shed moose antlers in the wilderness, and who can not love the name “Common Freckle Pelt,” the statement “the most important lichen in Canada” kept taking me back to the Star-tipped Reindeer Lichen (Cladonia stellaris). It is the lichen that is the most visible organism in my favourite part of the world (the high-country granite of places like the White Pass) and I love the way it feels under my bare feet early in the summer, so that’s the lichen that got my vote.