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Colored lichens blanket the side of a rock at Glacier national Park. Lichens can selection in shade from black color or white to yellow or red, and almost everything in between.

bsci-ch.org photo / Tim Rains


When you look the end at the forest, you often see the step from a “big picture” point of view. You more than likely see the facets which room the many visually appeal or obvious: the trees, boulders, flowers, and also animals that contact the forest home. But one point you might not see appropriate away space the different varieties of lichen that call the woodland home, too.

You are watching: Lichens are important to an ecosystem because they

Although lichen might be small, castle play critical role in keeping both people and nature healthy. Lichen tell us a lot around the wellness of the our herbal areas—they tell us if the air we’re breathing is clean or not.


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Small yellow, white, grey, and black lichen sheathe a rock at Petrified woodland National Park. Lichen can thrive on countless different surfaces, well-known as substrates, indigenous rocks come trees, and also even ~ above cars and buildings.

bsci-ch.org Photo

What organism is neither plant nor animal, however informs us around the air that we breathe? Lichen!

Lichen are tiny organisms frequently found transparent the woodlands of north America. They’re neither plant or animal, but rather they’re organisms unlike any kind of other top top Earth. When most world may think lichen are a form of moss, they are actually a combination of an algae and a fungus. The fungus provides a structure for the algae to live in, if the algae gives food because that the fungus.

Ranging in size from as little as a coin to strands that deserve to be number of feet in length, lichen flourish in all species of places. They also variety in colors native bright oranges and also yellows, to grays and greens, and even black. Lichen are a varied group of biology to say the least—as there are more than 3,600 different types of lichen in north America alone!

Different lichen varieties fill various roles within the ecosystems wherein they’re found. Lichen space a keystone varieties in many of the areas they speak to home. A keystone varieties is an biology that’s crucial to the health and also well being of whole ecosystem. Lichen space ecologically necessary to countless national parks, and also they have countless benefits for nature. The health and survival of countless ecosystems is usually connected to specific lichen species.

Here are some of the numerous benefits the lichen provide to nature:

They room a keystone species in plenty of ecosystems.

They serve as a food resource and habitat because that many pets such together deer, birds, and rodents.

They administer nesting products for birds.

They defend trees and rocks from extreme elements such together rain, wind, and also snow.


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A college student examines a lichen sample v a magnifying glass at Joshua Tree national Park.

bsci-ch.org photo / Jesmira Bonoan

Heavy metal Haters - keeping Our waiting Clean

Unlike trees and flowers that obtain their nutrients from the soil and rain, lichens get the food they have to survive straight from the air. Because lichen rely on the setting for every one of their nutrients, they deserve to grow nearly anywhere. Because each lichen has a preference for exactly how clean the air needs to be, they deserve to be offered as an essential tool because that measuring wait quality.

National Park business (bsci-ch.org) and also United says Forest service (USFS) scientists use lichen as a biomonitor to assess air quality throughout the country. A biomonitor is vital organism the helps show the wellness of the atmosphere as a whole.

Across the joined States, bsci-ch.org and also USFS scientists have taken more than 5,000 lichen samples and analyzed them to evaluate air quality. These samples are compared to other air high quality measurements, and then supplied to determine the health and wellness of surrounding ecosystems.

When the air has too countless pollutants in it, such together sulfur, hefty metals (copper or lead), or nitrogen, it have the right to be deadly because that lichen. Due to the fact that lichen space so sensitive to changes in air quality, they serve as great indicator of pollution levels.

Too lot sulfur and also heavy metals deserve to either kill lichen or sluggish their growth. ~ above the various other hand, certain lichen species thrive through excess atmospheric nitrogen, while other varieties dislike those conditions. These attributes are important, and also can be used to our benefit when us assess air quality. If nitrogen-loving lichen begin to flourish in a certain area when nitrogen-disliking species begin to disappear, that have the right to tell us around the amount of atmospheric nitrogen in that region.

One of the reasons we don’t desire lichen to disappear from the woodland is the they likewise act together an air scrubber for the waiting that us breathe. Much like a mop cleans a floor, lichen help clean our air. Lichen trap particulate issue in the air favor dust, if also soaking up smaller pollutants choose sulfur, mercury, and also nitrogen. This way cleaner, healthier air for united state to breathe.

Cleaner waiting lowers the danger of respiratory troubles like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Various other benefits of clean air incorporate lower hazard of respiratory tract infections, bronchitis, and also even premature death.

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While they may be smaller in the “big picture,” lichen space integral to keeping both us and also our air safe and healthy.


The big Picture

These tiny organisms beat a really important duty in the wellness of parks, and also they offer as windows right into the people of air. Because they count on the setting for all their nutrients, castle accumulate plenty of different varieties of elements and also particles inside their tissue. As soon as scientists check lichen samples, it enables us come peek right into the air us breathe on a molecular level, right down to a solitary element!

So next time she in a park and also are looking at the “big picture,” think of it like a painting. You see all the significant parts the the painting, prefer the trees or the wildlife. However those points wouldn’t be there if the weren’t because that the smaller sized brush strokes - the lichen. The lichen help include detail to the painting and act together the base layers for the totality piece. Every organism requirements clean wait to breathe at the end of the day, and lichen are critical for informing us if our air is clean and healthy. It is why we lichen this organisms!