It was only in 2006 that the presence of a rare lichen was first detected in Newfoundland and Labrador. Less than a decade later, biologists are trying to find a way to protect the small population that remains.
Vole ears lichen is a large and leafy variety of lichen found on trees. It has a felty and greyish-brown upper surface that turns grey-green when it becomes moist. Lichen are composite organisms typically formed by a fungus and either green alga or a bacteria.
According to a proposed recovery strategy Environment Canada released earlier this month, a single population of vole ears lichen is known to exist on 10 trees at six sites on the Avalon Peninsula as of January 2012, accounting for 26 adult organisms.
Complicating matters when it comes to assessing the status of the population, layman eyes cannot easily identify vole ears lichen.
“It would take some training,” suggests Krista Baker, a species-at-risk biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Service based in Mount Pearl.
In Nova Scotia, there are two populations at 29 sites, and it has been 34 years since its last reported sighting in New Brunswick.
The lichen was listed as endangered under the Species at Risk Act in 2012.
According to Baker, there are two forms of vegetative reproduction for vole ears lichen. One form allows it to reproduce on the tree it already occupies, while the other option makes use of wind, rain or animals to develop elsewhere.
“They can’t disperse very far on their own,” said Baker, who also noted there is one extremely rare case of sexual reproduction for vole ears lichen documented in North America.
Air pollution, forestry and invasive insects represent the main threats the lichen face.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, the strategy suggests the federal government should support the provincial Department of Natural Resources programs already in place to help the local population. For trees known to host the lichen, steps may also be taken to keep insects from climbing them.
The recovery strategy promotes forest management practices to protect the existing populations through stewardship and compliance promotion and outreach and education. Developing protocols to monitor and maintain an inventory of the vole ears lichen populations is also recommended.
Baker said efforts to transplant and protect another endangered lichen in Atlantic Canada — the boreal felt lichen — have shown some promise and received support from the forestry industry. In Nova Scotia, buffers are in place to protect host trees with boreal felt lichen.
Under the recovery strategy, transplanting the lichen is an option deemed to need further study in order to assess its feasibility.
“It would really be something that we would only look to do or be considered in exceptional circumstances,” said Baker.
The recovery strategy was developed over the last three years in collaboration with provincial government departments in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador. The latter province’s interests were represented by the departments of Environment and Conservation and Natural Resources.
Environment Canada will accept public comments on the strategy until the beginning of September. According to Baker, a finalized version of the recovery strategy should be ready for implementation this fall.