Lichenologist appreciates small things in life

Published on March 15, 2016

Equipped with an eye for detail, and fueled by a sense of humour, lichenologist, forest ecologist and conservationist Troy McMullin is practised in adventure and lichen discovery.

Last fall McMullin visited Newfoundland to work on research centred on boreal felt lichen, a sensitive lichen that is globally in decline — the last relatively large populations are here in Newfoundland. Here McMullin shares his thoughts on lichens, conservation and Newfoundland’s weather.

What exactly is lichen and why it is important?

The technical answer is that lichens are composite organisms comprised of a fungus and an algae (usually), or a cyanobacteria, or both. The fungus makes up the majority of the body of the lichen, and captures nutrients directly from the atmosphere and precipitation. The photosynthesizing partner produces carbohydrates. The non-technical answer is lichens are "fungi that have discovered agriculture."  

Lichens also have important ecological functions and several utilities for wildlife and humans. For example, lichens contribute to nutrient cycling (including nitrogen fixation), soil stabilization preventing erosion, and they are food, camouflage and nesting material for birds, insects and mammals. Human uses include food, medicine, poison, dyes, and they are good bioindicators. Since lichens "eat the air" instead of getting their nutrients from the soil, they are extra sensitive to pollutants in the air (including acid rain) and other disturbances that alter their environment. As a result, they are the “canaries in the coal mine” because they are one of the first organisms to respond to environmental changes such as air pollution and climate change.

What does being a lichenologist mean for you?

It means paying attention to detail and looking closely at the small things in life. Lichens can be inconspicuous and they are often overlooked, but they are beautiful and fascinating organisms that inhabit almost every terrestrial environment on Earth. The driving force behind my research is conservation, of lichens and important ecosystems, but I am also interested in education. If you go to the bookstore and look at the natural history section, you will find books on birds, mammals, insects, mushrooms, trees, flowering plants and more birds, but not lichens. I would like to help change that and help bring lichens to the public, because they are important.      

What attracted you to the study of lichens?

Lichens are beautiful. They are often referred to as the "coral of the forest" because of their brilliant colours, unique and diverse shapes, and, like coral, they are multiple organisms working as one. Lichens also do not change throughout the year, the way many vascular plants do, so they can be studied at any time. This is perfect for someone that loves to do field work in the fall when the bugs and hot days have passed.

My initial interest in lichens began while I was studying old-growth forests in Nova Scotia. I wanted to know what species were only found in these ancient, but limited and declining ecosystems. Turns out, many lichens often only occur in undisturbed old-growth forests. Once I began studying them, I was hooked.

Did you make any discoveries during your visit to Newfoundland that surprised you?

I was surprised by how different the lichen community in Newfoundland is compared to nearby Gaspé and the Maritime provinces. I was taken by the high abundance of lichen in general, but particularly the abundance of rare and sensitive species. I was also surprised to find Arctic species, lots of them, especially on the Avalon Peninsula. The Hawk Hills are only a few hundred metres high, but the summits are fully Arctic environments. I even found Arctic species growing on boulders in the rivers of Salmonier Nature Park at low elevation.

Tell us about a favourite experience while you were in Newfoundland.

Believe it or not, the weather was a highlight. I’ve heard that Newfoundland weather can be … challenging. I got lucky with almost six weeks of pleasant days, comfortable temperatures and no bugs — the perfect conditions for exploring the stunning landscapes and unique ecology of the areas I visited.

On the lichen side of things, my favourite discovery was a small stubble lichen (named after a resemblance to facial stubble) that I had not collected or seen before.

What should people know about lichen conservation and what can they do to help?

The first lichen listed in Canada by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) was boreal felt lichen. It was also the first lichen listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Newfoundland is a hotspot for this species. There is also a suite of rare lichens that inhabit the same environment as boreal felt lichen. They are often on the same tree.

If you think you have found these rare species, take pictures only and send them to local experts to verify. If you have these species on your property, learn how to be a good steward to help them survive.

There are a lot of really great lichen names out there. Fairy-puke is one of my favourites. If someone thinks they have a fantastic new lichen discovery or a great lichen name, what should they do?

There are still many species without common names. Those listed in guidebooks do have common names, but the species that are not are open for good creative suggestions.

If you find something that you can't find a description for and you think it might be a new or interesting discovery, send me pictures and/or a sample. We can work on it together. Who knows, you might end up with a species named after you.

Is there anything else you would like to tell us?

All life is important, no matter how small, so get outside and appreciate the little things in life.

Troy McMullin’s research is extensively published as scientific journal articles, books, book chapters and public media. His latest co-authored book was recently released by the New York Botanical Garden Press, “Common Lichens of Northeastern North America: A Field Guide.”

When McMullin is not in the field or writing about lichens, he is often leading workshops, giving presentations or consulting with private and public groups about lichens and conservation. He is currently transitioning between the University of Guelph and the Canadian Museum of Nature.


Kathy Unger is a conservation assistant with the Nature Conservancy of Canada.