The Unexpectedly Weird and Beautiful World of Lichens

Lichens grow among the fall-colored leaves of dwarf birch in the tundra landscape above the Arctic Circle, showing both the diverse beauty and amazing survival instincts of these organisms. . Gregory A. Pozhvanov/Shutterstock

Lichen is something we commonly see growing on rocks or tree branches, on old wood fences and rotting stumps. But how often do you stop to really ponder lichens? Probably not often. And yet lichens are surprisingly fascinating ... and weird ... and beautiful!

Not a Singular Organism

Despite their looks, lichens aren't plants. Nor are they in the fungus family. They're a unique composite organism, the result of a symbiotic relationship of organisms from as many as three kingdoms, with the main partner being fungus. As Lichens of North America puts it, "The lichen fungi (kingdom Fungi) cultivate partners that manufacture food by photosynthesis. Sometimes the partners are algae (kingdom Protista), other times cyanobacteria (kingdom Monera), formerly called blue-green algae. Some enterprising fungi exploit both at once." A study published in Science revealed that in addition to fungus and algae that lichens also include yeast. This yeast appears in the lichen cortex and contains two unrelated fungi. Lichens are their own kind of being.

They are also incredibly abundant, found everywhere from temperate forests to icy cold tundra, from the tropics to the deserts. They are the dominant vegetation on as much as 8 percent of the land on Earth, able to survive where many other plant species don't stand a chance.

Already lichen seems far more complex than you probably realized. And this is only the beginning of the story.

Lichens grow across the surface of granite rocks
Lichens grow across the surface of granite rocks. Gregory A. Pozhvanov/Shutterstock

Able to Survive Extreme Environments

Lichen species are able to survive in some amazingly extreme environments. "Lichens grow in the leftover spots of the natural world that are too harsh or limited for most other organisms," according to the Lichens of North America website. "They are pioneers on bare rock, desert sand, cleared soil, dead wood, animal bones, rusty metal, and living bark. Able to shut down metabolically during periods of unfavorable conditions, they can survive extremes of heat, cold, and drought."

It's interesting to think of lichen as "pioneers," but they are in a way. They exist by bringing together two or more life forms that need each other to thrive. In doing so, they create more abundant life where it wouldn't normally be found — essentially colonizing new frontiers and inviting other species to grow in otherwise barren areas. They are also self-sufficient. They do not feed off the surface over which they grow, as parasites do, but instead create their own food through photosynthesis using the algae from which they are partially made.

Rust-colored lichen
Jewel lichen, also called rock jewel lichen, is a type of crusty lichen able to grow in harsh areas, even on the surface of rocks. gubernat/Shutterstock

Three Main Categories of Lichen Species

If lichen is part fungus and part algae, what exactly is lichen? The main body of a lichen is called a thallus. Based on that, lichen species are categories in three main categories: crusty, leafy and shrubby. Some other forms, including squamulose, filamentous and gelatinous types are recognized, but mostly they fall under the three umbrella categories. So even if you don't know what species you're looking at, you'll at least be able to tell if it is crusty, leafy or shrubby in appearance.

Cladonia lichens
Cladonia lichens, also known as cup lichens, along with miniature moss grow on vertical rock in Karelian forest, Russia. Gregory A. Pozhvanov/Shutterstock
British Soldier lichen
British Soldier lichen is a species of cup lichen. The red part of the thallus is the part that makes spores, allowing reproduction. Kim Foote/Shutterstock

Scientists originally thought that lichens were very early organisms, making their way from land to water and actually paving the way for plants to grow. But a 2019 study found that they are much younger than originally thought.

"When we look at modern ecosystems, and we see a bare surface like a rock, oftentimes lichens are the first thing to grow there, and eventually you'll get plants growing on there too," Matthew Nelsen, lead author of the paper and a research scientist at the Field Museum, said in a statement. "People have thought that maybe that's the way ancient colonization of land worked, but we're seeing that these lichens actually came later in the game than plants."

Dog lichen
Dog lichen grows among mosses and other lichens in Scotland. Jan Holm/Shutterstock
Reindeer moss
Reindeer moss is a type of shrubby lichen that grows in many places, especially across the Arctic tundra. /Shutterstock

Uses of Lichens

Lichens have long been used as a natural pigment for dying cloth and wool. They're also dried and used in art, particularly in the construction scale models by architects to railroad enthusiasts. You may very well have used lichen in your own school homework when crafting scale models of farms, missions or towns for class projects.

Cup lichens
Cup lichens look like a tiny forest of trees. PHOTO FUN/Shutterstock
Yellow lichen
Lichen has been used as a pigment for dyes for centuries. It's not hard to see why when you see this kind of vivid colors. LFRabanedo/Shutterstock

Slow Growers

Lichens are incredibly slow-growing — we're talking millimeters or less per year for many species. But with slow growth comes longevity, and as is usually the case with slow-growing organisms, they are some of the oldest living things on the planet. In her book "The Oldest Living Things," Rachel Sussman documents map lichens in Greenland that are between 3,000 and 5,000 years old.

To ward off the dangers of being a stationary organism in a moving world, lichens have developed an incredible array of defenses, including "an arsenal of more than 500 unique biochemical compounds that serve to control light exposure, repel herbivores, kill attacking microbes, and discourage competition from plants," according to the Lichens of North America site. "Among these are many pigments and antibiotics that have made lichens very useful to people in traditional societies."

Sensitive to Pollution

That longevity is threatened, however. According to UC Berkeley, "The most serious threat to the continued health of lichens is not predation, but the increased pollution of this century. Several studies have shown serious impacts on the growth and health of lichens resulting from factory and urban air pollution. Because some lichens are so sensitive, they are now being used to quickly and cheaply assess levels of air toxins in Europe and North America."

Crusty lichens
Crusty lichens can look like little more than a hard film growing across a surface. Worraket/Shutterstock
Multi-textured and multi-colored lichen
Taking on many textures and colors, lichens can be an exceptionally beautiful part of an ecosystem. Sarah2/Shutterstock
Yellow lichen on a tree.
Lichens have many uses, not the least of which is teaching us more about the health of our environment and the potential role they play in human medicine. Kurkul/Shutterstock