Algae and Fungi Team Up, and They’re Lichen It

Every year at BioBlitz, National Geographic and the U.S. National Park Service rally to get people young and old to explore the wild spaces around them during a whirlwind 24-hour search to identify every species they can find. In advance of our next event in Golden Gate National Recreation Area, March 28-29, 2014, we’re already exploring stories of the life and lands of northern California. Learn More and Sign Up for BioBlitz 2014!

In this installment, National Geographic’s Caryl Sue takes a poetic look at the romance between algae and fungi: lichen. A lichen is not a single organism, but made up of an “alga partner” and a “fungus partner.” Ecologically, lichens can grow almost anywhere, including the icy tundra, where trees and most plants are unable to survive. They also survive quite nicely in the Bay Area, and BioBlitzers are sure to see some.

With genuine apologies to Robert Burns.

Photo of lichen
Lichen cover a boulder in the Mountains of the Moon, Uganda Photograph by Paul Zahl, National Geographic

Their love can be a bit crustose
with areoles in bloom
Their love can produce thread-like string,
called hyphae, when they plume

Their love has colonized the Earth
from deserts to the ice
These extremophiles exist
on sand, on trees, on gneiss

Who could these star-crossed lovers be?
Why are they symbiotes?
They reproduces asexually
unlike us mammal folk

fungus, a mycobiont,
is one part of the pair
It often lives all on its own:
itself, dead things, and air

The other love, photobiont
can turn light into food
The trick is photosynthesis
a skill that’s pretty shrewd

Photobionts can be algae
sometimes cyanobac
Some lucky fungi can have both
at once, and that’s a fact

A pair now caught between two worlds
not fungi, not algae
A composite organism
of one, or two, or three

United now, this smart couple
sets out to reproduce
Small spores or fragments of themselves
are set on winds, diffuse

Some reproduce by using spores
sped off to parts unknown
These fungi that do not find mates
are doomed to die alone

Soredia, isidia
are reproductive packs
In orange, or green, or yellow hues
or purplewhite, or black

foliose! O fruticose!
squamulose, and more!
The fungi and the algae have
so many types in store

Animals use them for their nests
hummingbirds and turkey
They’re almost all that reindeer eat
in the winter, murky

People eat them as “famine food”
They’re not a tasty treat
They’re used in herbal remedies
in dyes, and perfumes sweet

So, once upon a time ago,
fungi, algae convince—
They fell in love, and they have been
lichen it ever since

Learn More and Sign Up for BioBlitz 2014