Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Webinar: What's a Lichen?

Webinar: What's a Lichen?
Air date: April 16, 2020

Maggy Benson:
Hello, everybody. Welcome to Smithsonian Science How live video webinars. We're so happy to have folks joining us here virtually today. While everybody is joining, I want to just introduce myself. My name is Maggy Benson, and I am a museum educator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. And like everybody, we are working from home and I am joining me today from my home in Washington, D.C. So while you're joining, why don't you take a moment and find the chat. The chat is located either on the bottom of your screen or on the top of your screen. Take a look around and use that chat to tell us where you are tuning in from. I'm going to take a moment to welcome some of you now. All right. We have Mia. Hey, Mia. Thanks for joining us. We have Hank and Miles from, gosh Colorado, Abigail from Ipswich. We have Arlington, Virginia, Seth from Vermont. We have Skaneateles, New York. All right. Dallas, Texas.

Fort Worth, Midlothian, Texas. I don't know if I'm saying that right. Otis from Illinois. Zoey Ann from Texas. Hey, we have a lot of Texas awesome. Manuela is from Texas today. We have Ruby in Virginia. Welcome. Cheryl. More Ipswich, Massachusetts, Los Angeles, Denver, Philadelphia. Magnolia from Washington, D.C. Welcome Magnolia. Violet from D.C., Woodbridge, Judy. All right. Virginia Beach, Washington, D.C., Richmond, Virginia. Well, we have so many people joining us from all over the country right now. We have Idaho, we have Seattle. We have more from Maryland, New York, New York, New York, Wisconsin. Welcome everybody. We are so happy to have you here in our virtual program today to explore lichens. All right. Now, while some of you are still joining us, I want to take a moment and go through a little bit of the background information and logistics for today's program.

So today we are going to be learning about lichens and how scientists like Manuela, study lichens. And maybe you don't know what lichens are just yet, but you'll be surprised that you probably recognize them once we start getting into it. And after today's program, you might be like us and start seeing lichens everywhere. And our today's program is about 45 minutes long, and I'm going to share my screen here just for a moment. All right. Okay. Today's program is about 45 minutes long, and to get through all of the fun things that Manuela has prepared for us, we are going to take questions after the first segment, which is when we'll learn a little bit about Manuela and what she does as a lichenologist, then we will learn about what a lichen is and do some fun activities, and we'll take more questions after that segment. And finally, we're going to learn about how scientists study lichens and why they study lichens about what their importance are. And then we'll take as many questions as we can.

The program is about 45 minutes long, but if we still have a lot of questions at the end, we'll try to stay a little bit longer to get to all of them. All right. Now, a lot of you are finding the chat at the bottom of the screen. Well done. I want to welcome a couple more folks from Capitol Hill, from North Wales across the pond. Welcome. We have Kristen, we have N and P, we have Deidre, Pennsylvania, Delaware. Welcome to everybody. We are so happy to have you here with us. Now the chat that you're using, I want to remind everybody that this chat is only visible to the panelists. So the folks that work at the Smithsonian are the only ones that can see your comments in the chat. And we want you to use that chat to answer the questions that we ask you. Manuela has a couple activities and a couple opportunities to observe what she's talking about today. And that's where you're going to react to those images that she shares and answer those questions.

Now, if you take a look at your Zoom screen, you should see another button that has Q&A on it. It's the one with two speech bubbles. It may be located on the bottom of your screen, or the top. So take a look around and find that Q&A button. That is where we want you to send the questions to us that you have for Manuela. And that's where we'll look for all of the questions to be able to ask Manuela during today's live program. So we already see that Dylan has found that Q&A. Well done, Dylan. So use that space to ask Manuela questions during today's program. All right. Now, to test out that chat, I did want to ask you one very, very important question. All right. Now, what do you call the lichens featured in today's program? Hmm, here's a real brain buster. What would you call the lichens featured in today's program? All right. We'll monitor the chat and see what you think. Fungus, lichens, moss, close. All right. Moss.

All right. While you're thinking about that... Moss. All right. Communal organisms. Interesting. All right. Well, I am... As I said, this is a really big brain buster, what I was going to call them were rock stars. You know it's a bad joke when you laugh at it yourself, but we're glad that you guys are getting used to using that chat and answering some of our questions. Now, I want to thank all of you in advance for keeping all of your comments on topic and not spamming us in that chat or the Q&A. So we have a lot of people joining us, they've joined since I've introduced myself, my name is Maggy Benson and I'm a museum educator at the Smithsonian, and I have the joy of connecting you with lichenologist Manuela Dal Forno. Hey, Manuela.

Manuela Dal Forno:
Hi, everybody. Thank you so much for being here.

Maggy Benson:
Yeah, we're so happy to have you. Now, when I first met Manuela, Manuela told me that she first noticed lichens... She always loved nature, but she first noticed lichens when she was introduced to lichens when she was in college. And ever since then, she's been seeing them everywhere and helping others like me and everybody joining us today, see them everywhere too. So, Manuela, today you're going to share a little bit of your research with us and explore the special way that these different organisms come together to make a lichen?

Manuela Dal Forno:
Yes.

Maggy Benson:
Awesome. So can you tell us a little bit more about when you first started noticing lichens? We have a lot of people joining us today that are in elementary and middle school and you didn't know what a lichen was when you were that age. Did you?

Manuela Dal Forno:
No, not at all. So I first see everybody shared where they're tuning from, Maggy already said. Actually I live in Fort Worth, Texas where I am a researcher at the Botanical Research Institute of Texas. And I used to be at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. And in both places I worked as lichenologist, which simply means a person who studies lichens. So Maggy asked me how did I end up here pretty much. So it's actually a funny story. And in high school I didn't know lichens yet, but I always loved biology. I was actually between becoming an actress and a biologist. But as I said, I really like fungi, and especially mushrooms and also active learning. So I think that really cut the deal. And that in my first semester in undergrad, so I decided for biology and I got very lucky because in a three-hour workshop that was offered by two alumni in the university that I was attending. Their names, Adriana Spielman and Luciana Kunis. And that just simply changed my mind. It was my life actually.

So it was then in there that I decided that I wanted to dedicate my life to studying lichens. And so it was... Literally I fell in love over 17 years ago, for lichens. And I also prepared some slides with you, so bear with me, I'm going to share some with you. I think you can see them now. So these are two of my favorite places to be. So in the lab and in the field. And I hope that by the end of today's program, I might convince you to maybe join me in this endeavor. And here's an image that can show you how beautiful and how diverse are lichens, and maybe you can respond in the chat what colors are you seeing right now?

Maggy Benson:
They're beautiful. Wow! That's amazing. I never knew that lichens came in so many different colors. Vinson says rainbows. Priscilla, rainbows, purple, pink, red, yellow, brown. Any colors, green, rainbow, rainbow, purple, purple, gray.

Manuela Dal Forno:
That sounds about right. So any color that you can imagine, you most likely will find a lichen.

Maggy Benson:
That is so cool. So have you seen them come in all of these different colors yourself?

Manuela Dal Forno:
Yes. So these are all actually my pictures of several field trips that I've done around the globe. So, that's pretty amazing. They're always amazing me.

Maggy Benson:
So, Manuela, we have a lot of students here today. Before we dive into exactly what a lichen is, can you share a couple more things that you found or discovered before we dive into what a lichen is?

Manuela Dal Forno:
Yes. So I prepared some slides because I usually get asked repeated questions. So I'm going to start sharing with you my favorite lichen. Whoops! Going back. So this is my favorite lichen. And you might not have an idea of how big this is, it's actually bigger than my head. It was collected by Mason Hale, in Panama. And for me, it's just amazing to think. I think it's really representative of how important historical collections are because this was collected in 1975. And it just shows how herbarium, which are places that we keep dry plants and lichens, but actually, museum collections in general, are so important, because this actually belongs to an undescribed species in the group that I work with, known as Dictyonema. So imagine it was collected 45 years ago, but just now I'm having the opportunity to look at it. So it's a glimpse to the past, because it might not even be available or exist in nature anymore, because a lot of these places have been deforested. So it's really representative to me as well.

People also ask me, what's the biggest lichen I've seen, and I think they might belong to this group of lichen known as Cladoniaceae. And as you can see, they're forming these mats have lichens on the floor. So they're all these whitish things that you're seeing growing. That's all just several lichens covering the soil of this cemetery. And something that people... This is probably the question that I get asked the most, is what's the coolest thing about lichens? Well, lichens have a lot of cool things. I'm not going to lie. But one of the coolest things is that they may have over 1,000 different compounds, including acids and pigments. And what you're seeing on your screen right now, it's a tree. And you can see some white lichens, not very exciting at first, right? But when you shine a UV light, see what happens.

Maggy Benson:
Wow!

Manuela Dal Forno:
So imagine that. So it's at least telling me they're potentially four different species, because they have several chemical profiles. So I think that's pretty cool.

Maggy Benson:
That is very cool. Again, we see a rainbow of colors.

Manuela Dal Forno:
Yes. Right? And imagine with just a UV light. And something else that people ask me a lot is if I've discovered any new lichens, and the answer is yes. Because there are so many lichens out there, there are 20,000 known lichen species, but a lot more undescribed. So I would say that you can make significant impact as a lichenologist, because there's a world out there waiting for our attention.

Maggy Benson:
That is amazing. And we did have a question from one of our users, Alina wants to know where you find the pink and purple lichens.

Manuela Dal Forno:
Well, pink and purple are definitely some of the most difficult colors to find. But I remember seeing pink lichens. I've seen them in Brazil and in Finland, and purple, depending on the purple. So in the Philippines or in the tropics, you just have to to go out there and search for these lichens, they would love to have all of you looking for them.

Maggy Benson:
All right. So thank you, Manuela, for telling us a little bit about lichens, and yourself. And soon Manuela is going to help us understand what exactly a lichen is and how she studies them and why they're important. But first students, we have a question for you before we get to some of your questions. We want to know if you've ever seen a lichen. And if you think you have, tell us where you're tuning in from. We would love to know where people have seen lichens who are tuned in today. And while you're entering those comments into the chat, use the Q&A to submit questions for Manuela. And Manuela, we're going to get to a couple of those now before we move on. All right. So Carla asks, "Can lichens be used for medicine?"

Manuela Dal Forno:
Yes. And it's Carla. Right? So we'll talk a little bit more about that towards the end of the program. But the short answer is yes, and there's a lot of very exciting research that is showing that the multiple uses of lichens. So for example, for cancer research is one of the main areas that we're testing different compounds, chemical compounds that I mentioned, some of them are being tested in many areas.

Maggy Benson:
Dylan wants to know if lichens are vulnerable to pollution.

Manuela Dal Forno:
Yes. Another great question there. We'll also touch about that towards the end of the program, but the answer is yes. And you'll learn why in a little bit.

Maggy Benson:
All right. Do people eat lichen?

Manuela Dal Forno:
Yes. So it's not very common to eat lichens, but we do eat lichens, and I've eaten one in Finland.

Maggy Benson:
How many types of lichens are there?

Manuela Dal Forno:
So there are 20,000 known lichen species, but a lot more to be described yet. So that's part of our job as lichen community, is to go out there and find new lichens so we can better understand what's the diversity on Earth.

Maggy Benson:
All right. We're going to go and read some of these responses in the chat in a moment. But first, back to that UV lichen, Henry wants to know that if of UV light changes, how they look, do they look different to animals, and do the colors serve a purpose in nature?

Manuela Dal Forno:
That is an amazing question that we don't know. And when I say we, is the scientific community. We don't know much about it. So we know that several animals have this UV view, this special skill that they have, and we don't really know how they perceive lichens, or why even these lichens are UV positive. We don't know that. So, that's something that we still have to tackle. And as I said, there are a lot of lichens, a lot of really cool questions like this one that you just asked, but we don't know the answers yet. So a lot of work ahead of us.

Maggy Benson:
Now, I want to read some of the places where our viewers today have seen lichens. So everyone, there's a lot of responses. So I'm going to try to get to a bunch of them right now. And they include Mount Vernon, Washington, Ipswich, Massachusetts, Arlington, Virginia, Tennessee, United Arab Emirates. Welcome. Michigan, Massachusetts, throughout New York, Laos, Austin, Texas, Woodbridge, Virginia, Fort Worth. Somebody sees it on the tree right now. Chile, Mount Rainier, Maryland, Shenandoah National Park, Moran, Texas, Massachusetts, Maryland, New York on rocks, in the grass, on sticks. New York, Virginia, Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone. Gosh, it's wonderful to see so many people who have visited so many different places and noticed lichens in all of these places.

We also have Arizona, more Virginia, more Texas, Grand Junction, Colorado. Are lichens everywhere Manuela? It certainly seems like they're in a lot of places where viewers are tuning in from now.

Manuela Dal Forno:
Absolutely. So, I just really appreciate that you're all here to learn more about lichens. And yes, lichens are definitely in all of those places, from different cities and states and countries worldwide. So the good thing about lichens is that you can see them everywhere, from cities, forests, to suburbs and at the beach, for example. And even though you may not know what a lichen is, you've definitely seen one before. So I actually, even though we're practicing social distancing this days, we're lucky that lichens are everywhere. So I brought one for you right here. So the next time that you go on a walk, being safe of course, look at those tree branches that you might see. So all of these here in gray, and these yellow... Oh, Maggy, you found some too, right?

Maggy Benson:
I found one too. Yes.

Manuela Dal Forno:
That's pretty cool. So these are all lichens. And you might have at first imagine that lichens are just possibly found in pristine tropical forests, like the ones that you see in your screen, but they may actually be in extreme environments, such as Antarctica here. But good for us, as we all notice by now, you've seen so many lichens in your backyard around the city. They're also around us in urban environments. And also just so the next time that you go on the hike, look for them. So we saw that some people in the chat, they might have not seen a lichen yet, but now that you know what they are, and you look for them, I guarantee you find lichens everywhere, because that's really nice about lichens. They're everywhere, literally everywhere, on Earth, in all habitats.

Maggy Benson:
So we got a good question from Carla. She says that she sees us touching the lichens, if she had a field trip with kids looking for them, is it okay to touch lichens?

Manuela Dal Forno:
Yes, absolutely. So, lichens are safe to be touched. And it's actually encouraged because lichens have several different textures. And some of them can be used as characters for identification.

Maggy Benson:
Okay. So if we're training our viewers today to look for lichens, what exactly should they be looking for?

Manuela Dal Forno:
Okay. So, a lichen is... I'm going to also go back to sharing my screen here. First of all, I'm going to say what lichens are not. So lichens are not plants, nor animals, there are actually several things living together, and what's living together in lichen is... The bark of a lichen, it's composed of a fungus. And fungi are organisms that they cannot produce their own food, so they get their nutrients from an outside source. And you might think of fungi as mushrooms that you see on a hike decomposing a tree, or the mushrooms that you eat in your pizza, or for the yeast baking bread. And so there are many different types of fungi. And some of them are involved in the lichenization process. These are going to get together with certain types of algae. And algae are also another group of organisms that are photosynthesizing in either making their own food like plants.

And algae can be tiny, or there are some really large algae, but the ones that you might encounter on a daily basis is sort of like this green stuff growing on ponds, or if you have a fish tank, you're like, "What is this growing here?" These are actually algae. So again, some algae might be involved in the lichenization process. And then a third component that I'm hearing here calling the microbiome, that is composed of complex community of micro organisms that are invisible to our eyes, but that is mostly bacteria and micro fungi. So we need a special equipment to visualize them. So imagine that all of these come together to form what in nature we see as the lichen thallus. So when you see a lichen, you just see one thing, but if you look really close, and you see it now on your screen under a microscope, you see that there's algae in this green bluish color and the fungal cells here in clear.

Maggy Benson:
So Priscilla asked, are lichens two or three different things living together? And really, it's three things. You have the fungus, you have the algae, and you have the micro organisms all living together.

Manuela Dal Forno:
Exactly.

Maggy Benson:
All right. So at the very beginning, we had a lot of folks commenting that lichens, what comes to mind when you think of a lichen? And it was moss and fungus. How do you tell the difference when you're out in nature looking for lichen if it's a moss or a fungus?

Manuela Dal Forno:
Very good question. So let me go back to sharing my screen with you. Hold on just a second. So, right there. You can see some examples of lichens. So just to recap, lichens are not plants, so they don't have seeds, roots, fruits, flower. And they're part algae, but not like a plant. And they're also part fungi, but not completely like a mushroom. So we know what lichens are and what they're not. But nature doesn't come with a name tag, right? That would be pretty easy if you would go outside and everybody would start introducing themselves, "I'm a moss, I'm a lichen." So I'm going to be honest and say that it's not always easy to spot lichens at first, but how do you get better. is with practice. So the more you go outside or you look at images of lichens, you're going to train your eye and your brain to detect lichens. So as lot of people said, "Oh, lichens are like moss." So lichens are not like moss. Okay, moss are mostly tiny plants that you're going to see here in your image. They're in this bright green here.

And I like to say that mosses and lichens are like best friends, because you're going to see a lot of the times them together. And the lichens here in this image are these light green ones. And you can also add to that equation with things that are similar to lichens. So mushroom. So in this image now, you see mosses, again in this bright green, some more lichens here in the lighter colors and mushrooms. So again, practice. So let's get started maybe right now, I showed you some examples. And can you maybe respond on the chat? What do you think this is? Do you think this is a lichen? Yes, no, or what do you see?

Maggy Benson:
All right. We have mushroom, fungi, mushroom, mushroom, an amazing mushroom. I agree that it's a beautiful mushroom. It looks fake. Mushroom. All right. Well done everyone.

Manuela Dal Forno:
And some plant too, right?

Maggy Benson:
Fungi and moss.

Manuela Dal Forno:
Perfect.

Maggy Benson:
Mushroom. We have an emoji fungi with a worm. It does kind of look like a worm on there. A Smurf home. Yep, it looks like that too. So how is everybody doing? How are they doing with their observation skills?

Manuela Dal Forno:
Wonderful. I'm going to say that you're ready to keep going.

Maggy Benson:
All right. So we did have a question from Kayla, that asked why do those three things come together? Do they help each other survive? And we had another request to see that slide again, where you have the three organisms that come together to make a lichen.

Manuela Dal Forno:
Okay, let's go back to that. The diagram, right?

Maggy Benson:
Yep.

Manuela Dal Forno:
All right. So, I'm almost there. Okay, it's right here. So let me share the screen with you again. There you go. Are you seeing it right now?

Maggy Benson:
Yep.

Manuela Dal Forno:
Okay. So, meanwhile, I can maybe respond to the question. So, lichens are actually one of the most classic examples of symbiosis. And we're going to learn about each one of them. So the fungus is providing sort of the structure to the lichen. So sort of like the shelter, where inside that the algae is going to grow. And the algae because it's synthesizing, or is making sugars via photosynthesis, it's basically going to feed the fungus and the bacteria. So the community they're... Again, mostly they're tiny, invisible, but they're responsible for many functions, including provision of certain nutrients and hormones, and also other functionality that might help lichens to adapt to certain environments, for example.

Maggy Benson:
All right. Manuela, you have a funny way of remembering all of these different roles of the three things that come together to make a lichen. Can you share those with our viewers today?

Manuela Dal Forno:
I do. Yeah. So our students, I want to ask you, let's go back to sharing my screen here. So I want to ask what is your lichen lifestyle? So are you more like the fungus providing the shelter? Or are you more like the algae producing the food? Are you more of the microbiome like the community? Are you more like the substrate? And the substrate is actually where the lichen is growing. So you see here, there's like a little tree and a rock, so it's where the lichen is growing. So providing the foundation. So which among of these options you identify yourself the most? And meanwhile, I'm going to put you on the spot Maggy, what are you?

Maggy Benson:
Okay, my choices are providing shelter, producing food, the community or the foundation. I definitely am the microbiome. The community, especially now that we're social distancing, I realized just how much I love my neighbors and everyone around me. So I choose microbiome. How about you, Manuela?

Manuela Dal Forno:
I think during this social distancing time, I feel more like the algae because I've been cooking and baking and eating a lot.

Maggy Benson:
Well, you're not alone. We have a lot of people who say food and algae, we have substrate, algae in the community, the substrate, the community, the microbiome. As a mom, definitely the algae. Microbiome, all of them, the foundation, the fungus, the food. Gosh, I think together all of us today who are viewing your program Manuela, can come together to make some really nice lichens.

Manuela Dal Forno:
I agree. Which reminds me that we are talking about organisms living together. And I'm going to... I have to take this opportunity to say that lichens are one of the most classic examples of symbiosis. So, let's add our rock stars to this list. Maggy, you've probably seen Finding Nemo, right? So the clownfish and the sea anemone. That's another example of symbiosis. And in science, the symbiosis literally means living together. So maybe can our students think of other symbiosis that you know of?

Maggy Benson:
Okay. So take a moment and tell us in the chat, are there any other symbioses that you can think of? Here we see lichen and the classic clownfish and anemone, are there any other symbioses that you're familiar with? Okay. So whales and barnacles, roommates, remora, hippos and birds, flowers and bees, coral, families, moss, ants and fungus, mites and eyelashes. Flowers and bees, sharks and pilot fish, alligators and birds, cleaner wrasse and turtles. Wow! A lot of our friends know a lot about different nature relationships today. Apple trees and bees, cattle and egrets. All right. So how are these responses looking, Manuela?

Manuela Dal Forno:
Amazing. So it seems like everybody's really into symbiosis. And whoever said the roommates, even though that's more about relationships, I think that's a good analogy to our daily life. Just like the lichen lifestyle, I think it reflects the relationships that we have in life and how so many people are important for us.

Maggy Benson:
Absolutely. Which is so clear right now. All right. So, we're going to answer just a couple questions before we move on. We are at 2:30. Okay. So, a lot of people have asked do lichens live underwater?

Manuela Dal Forno:
That is a very interesting question. And actually, there are some lichens that may live underwater. So especially in freshwater. So, sometimes... Very recently actually, I was visiting Brazil with some colleagues that are online now. And we went to a waterfall that had some lichens growing on the rocks and completely covered by water. And there's also some lichens that may live on coastal areas, that may have some tide impact on them too.

Maggy Benson:
This segues well to Ray Hans question. If lichens are everywhere, how do they survive in all different climates?

Manuela Dal Forno:
So, I would attribute lichen, the diversity and how they're able to adapt to so many different environments due to the diversity of all of the different components. So there are so many different types of fungi that can be involved in this symbiosis, but there are so many different types of algae and bacteria, and all of together, they're able to adapt to anywhere or any ecosystem on Earth.

Maggy Benson:
Okay. Jenny, wants to know, do animals eat lichen and are some lichens in danger?

Manuela Dal Forno:
Very interesting questions. Again, we're going to talk a little bit more about lichens and animals, I think in the next segment. But yes, they're very important for several animals, including some that eat lichens. And there are lichens endangered. Yes. We don't have them necessarily listed yet, but there is a major effort by the community that is trying to list some lichens. But there are a few already listed. And this is especially due to devastation of their natural habitat. So, some lichens... There are a lot of lichens that are highly endemic, so they're only growing in this one specific area on Earth, and if this is a place that is being cut down, then the lichens are going to go and potentially become extinct.

Maggy Benson:
All right. So some folks have asked, can lichens be in trees? Yes, they can be. And we've had this one several times, can you grow lichen yourself?

Manuela Dal Forno:
You cannot grow lichens yourself. So whatever you see, and it's actually becoming pretty popular, the lichens are sold in stores. And you can even buy them online. But I would say please don't, because you cannot grow lichens, it's not like several plants that you can just plant a seed. So lichens are not plants, we cannot build lichens, not even in the lab. So as soon as you remove them, they're going to die. So I would say, unless you're using lichens for research, just take pictures and make drawings, and don't buy them.

Maggy Benson:
All right. So we have a lot of really great questions, but we're going to move on to another activity. Manuela, didn't you prepare another challenge? We have a couple of questions in our Q&A about the different shapes that lichens can be asking about that. So I think you have an activity prepared for us.

Manuela Dal Forno:
I do. Okay. So there are some amazing lichens out there. And I would say that most of our work starts when we're in the field. And you can see in your screen right now, some images of this, the latest expedition that I had, it was to the Philippines just at the end of last year, where I worked with several colleagues and I had just started my work at BRIT. So we were out there collecting plants and lichens, and then the next step for us scientists is to bring them back and further study them. And how do you start that, is by recognizing patterns. And there are many characteristics. So the way that lichens look that will help you to identify lichens, but the very first step is to separate them into three main growth morphs. And I'm going to show them to you and explain them a little bit. So to sort lichens, you can start by separating them into three main categories, crustose, foliose, and fruticose. And crustose, as the name say, it's pretty crusty, sometimes it just looks like a paint, and it's very attached to the substrate.

So for example, if I wanted to collect this crustose lichen, I would have to bring a piece of rock with me. The second type is the foliose, they're resembling leaves, and they're going to be forming these lobes. And they're usually looser on the... Their attachment is looser on the substrate. So usually just with a butter knife, you can remove these lichens. And the third type is fruticose, and they're usually branching, shrubby or hanging, okay? And they are going to be even easier to remove from the substrate with just one or a few points of attachment. And right now we have your first challenge. So we have a mystery lichen on your left, and the key on your right. So what do you think this is? Crustose, foliose, or fruticose?

Maggy Benson:
All right, use the image to tell us in the chat. And while you're doing that, you mentioned that you had collected those lichens in the Philippines. Welcome, Naves. We have a viewer who is from the Philippines.

Manuela Dal Forno:
Cool.

Maggy Benson:
Okay. So I'm going to read some of your responses. Well done making observations and a prediction. We have fruticose, fruticose, fruticose, fruticose, branching, fruticose. Well done everybody. Fruticose. so it looks like most people are saying fruticose and branching. How did they do?

Manuela Dal Forno:
They did well, that's why I already put another one up. So here that we have not one but two lichens, but they're the same type. So there's one the white and then there's one orangey. So what do you think that one is?

Maggy Benson:
Okay, we have crust, crust.

Manuela Dal Forno:
Yeah.

Maggy Benson:
Crusty. We have a couple foliose, crustose, crusty. These are crusty lichens. Crusty, crusty, crusty, crusty. Yes. We have a couple of leafy responses.

Manuela Dal Forno:
Okay. So this is actually at crustose lichen, you can see. There are no actual lobes, or this leafy pattern that you see here. Okay. And actually, I collected this specimens here, so I had to cut a piece out of the bark to bring it back with me. And if you're thinking that in the previous images, you just saw one or another type in nature, this is something that you might see. So this picture I took in Costa Rica many years ago. And you can see that there's just a party of lichens. So again, we have A, B, and C. And you can utilize some time there to your responses.

Maggy Benson:
All right. So use this graphic to tell us if you can identify the type of growth pattern of each of these lichens. All right. So we have a couple of answers already. A, crustose. B, fruticose. C, fruticose. We have a B, foliose. A, crustose. We have a lot of A, crustose. We have a lot of Bs saying that they're foliose. Cs, fruticose. This is like a fun puzzle. All right.

Manuela Dal Forno:
Yes.

Maggy Benson:
Crustose, A, crusty. B, foliose. So I think the majority of our folks think A is crustose... Oh, there we go.

Manuela Dal Forno:
Great job.

Maggy Benson:
Well done everybody. Your pattern recognition skills are awesome. So Manuela, this is something that you have to do as a lichenologist in the field all the time. Isn't that right?

Manuela Dal Forno:
Yeah, exactly. And then once we bring them back, we have a lot of more characters to analyze and make comparisons for example.

Maggy Benson:
And to do that, you actually work in a special lab. And in the past, you've actually had high school students work with you in the lab, can you tell us a little bit more about how you study? And we are about 42 minutes in. So we'll get through this and then we'll get to some more of our questions.

Manuela Dal Forno:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). So, yes. So when I was a postdoctoral researcher in the National Museum of Natural History, in downtown D.C., I had the opportunity to work with several high school students, that helped me in so many different projects. And we worked especially in extracting the DNA of lichens, and you're already seeing on your screen. DNA stands for deoxyribonucleic acid, and is the molecule that contains the genetic code of organisms. And just like us humans, lichens have DNA. And if you're imagining, "Oh my gosh, there are so many things that make up a lichen." Yes, we are going to have DNA of all of these. Fungi, bacteria and algae in a little tube. But that's very important for many different areas of research. And it's especially important for understanding biodiversity on earth, and for detecting new species of lichens, for example.

Maggy Benson:
And that's one technique that you've used to discover new lichens, isn't that right?

Manuela Dal Forno:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Absolutely.

Maggy Benson:
Okay. Now you talk to us today about how you're identifying lichens using their patterns and also DNA, but can you tell us why lichens are so important? We do have some questions here, more questions about medicine and if they're poisonous. What are the value of lichens?

Manuela Dal Forno:
Okay. So we don't have a lot of time because believe me, I could be talking about how important lichens are for a long time. So I'm going to keep it short. Lichens are key components in several in all ecosystems that they live. And a lot of other animals depend on lichens as well. I'm going to start sharing my screen I selected some examples for you here. You get to see that this hummingbird in Virginia, is utilizing lichens to build their nests. And actually, there are over 50 species of birds in North America, they utilize lichens for that reason, as well as small mammals. Lichens are also the background of several... For helping animals with their mimicry or camouflaging in the wild. And this picture I took in Jamaica two years ago, and can you see the moth?

Maggy Benson:
No, I see a spiky tree. Does anyone else see a moth?

Manuela Dal Forno:
So let me bring it up close, is right there.

Maggy Benson:
Wow! It blends in so well.

Manuela Dal Forno:
Yes. That's really amazing. And lichens, there are so many animals that benefit from that. Now I have a real challenge for you guys. So I'm going to give you a hint that you're looking for a spider. And what you're seeing on your screen is a really close up of a tree bark, and all this white stuff that you see they're all lichens, and there's a spider camouflaging. And while you look for it, I can tell us a little bit more about other animals that utilize lichens. And one of the main ones that some of our participants have asked is, does animals eat lichens? Yes. And the main food source of reindeer for example, imagine that during winter when everything else is dead, the reindeer is going to dig around and find lichens to eat. And there's also a species of monkeys in Asia, they live their entire lives in the tree canopy, and guess what's very easily found and in abundance there? Lichens. So... All right, did you get a chance to look for it?

Maggy Benson:
Okay, we have some people that say they have found it. Upper, center, a little bit in the right and on the middle. Some people are saying it is so hard. I agree. It's really hard.

Manuela Dal Forno:
Okay, so I'm going to show it to you. It's right there. And if you still can't see it, I'm going to bring it up close. Okay, so it's right there. You can see the abdomen, the cephalothorax and the legs here of the spiders. So pretty sneaky, huh?

Maggy Benson:
That's really sneaky. It's amazing that so many animals have adapted to be able to camouflage their bodies to look like lichen. We did get a couple questions in the chat. Do snakes blend in as lichen?

Manuela Dal Forno:
I think so, because especially in deserts, when you have rock areas where you're going to see a lot of snakes, there's going to be a lot of foliose and crustose lichens growing and they could mimic the pattern. I've actually seen other herbs too, beautiful pictures of them camouflaging.

Maggy Benson:
Wonderful. So Manuela, we are at 2:47, and we have a lot of questions still coming in. So if you're okay with staying a little while longer to answer some of these questions, that would be great. But for our viewers that do have to go, that was all of the program material that Manuela was planning on covering. But we can dive into some of these questions now.

Manuela Dal Forno:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maggy Benson:
We got an excellent question from Betsy, speaking about the value of lichens that asked if lichens can be used in bio remediation. So cleaning up the environment and specifically with heavy metals?

Manuela Dal Forno:
That is a great question, Betsy. I think there is some preliminary research utilizing lichens to do that. But usually it's utilized with controls, because again it's very easy to... It's very hard excuse me, to grow lichens. So this would have to be using real lichens, and to transport lichens from one location to another too, is very difficult. But there are a few groups in the world that is trying to do that because lichens can absorb the water and nutrients from the air, which is somewhat also... They're also being utilized to monitor the air quality. So some lichens are not going to survive in polluted environments. So that's why sometimes when you're walking around in the city, you get to see some of the same lichens because they're doing okay in this environment, but a lot of lichens have disappeared. So I think there's a lot of potential for research in bio remediation, or micro remediation.

Maggy Benson:
Okay, I'm going to ask you another question. But somebody else asked to see a picture of the three types of lichens again, the three different patterns. Maybe you can pull that up, and I'll ask the next question, which was going to be, can you explain how and why you collect lichens for research?

Manuela Dal Forno:
Oops. Yes. So you want to see these, right?

Maggy Benson:
Yes. Thank you.

Manuela Dal Forno:
Okay. So there are several areas. So the research areas in lichenology that you can use, so some of the ones that we were just asked, there's a lot of research being done for air quality monitoring. There's also a lot of ecological studies, I am mostly focusing on understanding the diversity of lichens in several different levels. So the way that lichens look, or why they choose to grow in certain areas, and not in others. And just by looking at this image here, we can see that lichens are very diverse. And then we are trying to understand patterns. And for my research, a lot of the times I'm doing field work. So I'm out there collecting. And for example in the Philippines, my most recent trip, we're trying to find out how diverse the southern portion of the Philippines are. So we're just going out there and collecting everything that looks different to understand really, what lichens are out there.

And once we have this base information, we can proceed to apply lichenology, which will be testing lichens for example for cosmetics and medicine, and so forth. But we first need to generate this base knowledge of what is lichen species, where is it growing, and how it is related to other lichen species.

Maggy Benson:
Okay, I'm going ask a couple questions here. This one's from Lorraine. If you see lichens growing on a tree, does it hurt the tree? And also, if you find a lichen, can you touch it? And when you find one, if you take it, will it die?

Manuela Dal Forno:
Yes, so you can touch a lichen, that's fine. They're not going to do anything to you. If you do remove a lichen from nature, it will die. So that's like a nice no to say that if you're not doing research, I hope you can appreciate lichens by taking pictures and making drawings in keeping memories. But what was the question again?

Maggy Benson:
Does a lichen hurt the tree that it's growing on?

Manuela Dal Forno:
Oh, yeah. So if the lichen hurt a tree, and actually a lot of people ask me that, and the lichen does not hurt the tree at all, is just basically utilizing as a substrate, because remember that the lichen is not going to get the nutrients and water from the substrate, but the air and the environment where it's in. So it's not going to do anything for the tree.

Maggy Benson:
We've received a couple questions asking how do lichens eat, and how do they breathe?

Manuela Dal Forno:
Okay. So lichens, we can think about how do they do these regular functions. They eat because of the algae that is making photosynthesis and producing sugars. So it's utilizing that for the algae itself, but it's also sharing with the fungi. And then the same thing is breathing just like other organisms do. So...

Maggy Benson:
All right. And we have several, Helen and Alliana, want to know how do they reproduce?

Manuela Dal Forno:
Great question. Reproduction of lichens is specially performing this two main groups. One is sexual reproduction, which is the formation of fruiting bodies and spores. So you probably heard about that when you think of mushrooms that release spores. So lichens can reproduce that way. So in such cases, there's a lot of different structures that can be formed. And those are very important for lichen identification. So in that case, you have the fungus producing a spore, and then that fungus is going to land somewhere, and is going to have to find a partner, so an algae that is compatible. And then they established this relationship and they're going to grow a new lichen. And there's also another. So this was sexual, and then there's asexual which is with parts of the thallus that are fragmented. And there's also many different structures. But this is sort of like the combo package because it already comes with parts of the fungus, the algae and the bacteria. And then that's just released and then they grow from this starting piece of lichen.

Maggy Benson:
Okay, what will happen in an ecosystem if there were no lichens?

Manuela Dal Forno:
Well, it is something really serious that we are actually facing because we can see with climate change, there are so many environments that are going to be affected, heavily affected. And lichens, especially lichens that are growing for example, in coastal vegetation that are going to be inundated. And the lichens are going to be completely drowned. Some people ask if they're okay in water, some species that have adapted to that, but not all of them. So if they live on the tree, they're not immersed, they're not going to be able to survive to that. And what would that impact to an environment? Well, it certainly has high impact and it depends on the environment. So for example, we saw the lichens are utilized for bird nest.

So imagine if there are no lichens, certain species of birds cannot build their nests, lots of animals are not going to be able to camouflage, so we might imbalance the predator-prey interactions for that environments. For the animals that directly eat lichens, they're not going to have food source and so forth. So a lot of animals also utilize lichens as shelter. So imagine those 3D lichens, how many insects can live inside that? So they're also going to lose potentially their homes.

Maggy Benson:
So these lichens are extremely important components of our ecosystems and our planets and lichenologists like you can better understand all of the lichens out there, where they grow and what their roles are in these communities. Manuela, we've had a lot of questions asking, where people can learn a little bit more about lichens? Can you share that with them?

Manuela Dal Forno:
Yes. Well, there's a lot of research online. So some of my favorite websites is ways of enlichenment. There's a lot of information out there, sometimes lichens are in the news, so enjoy that. And I actually also, keep a Twitter account. And if you are a lichen lover like me, you can follow me. So let me just share my screen now. This is my Twitter handle, @Manudalforno. And yes, so I'm lichen you. And if you're then a new lichen lover, and if you go out there, if you learn something new in this webcast, or if you go online and find something really interesting, you can post on Twitter, or Facebook with the #WeAreAllLichens. I usually post on Twitter news about lichens, so you can keep up on that way too.

Maggy Benson:
Absolutely. And Manuela, I already got kicked off with finding lichens in my neighborhood. So I want to show everybody if you do go out into your neighborhood and you find some lichens, we want to see the lichens in your neighborhood. So this is me in downtown Washington, D.C., And I found lichens all over this tree. So if you want to share those back with us, you can use the #ScienceHow, and #WeAreAllLichens. And we would love to see your lichen pictures. And also posted in the chat, we have a link to learn about more resources about Manuela and lichens, including this worksheet that can lead you through finding lichens in your own neighborhood and a resource to be able to compare them to others that are identified. So we encourage you to check that out. And Manuela, thank you so much for joining us today. We're so happy to have had you with us to learn a little bit more about lichens.

Manuela Dal Forno:
Thank you all so much. And as a final message, I would just like to say, keep practicing your observation skills, be curious, keep asking questions. And I will just say you probably heard about the cliche, find something that you love and you never have to work one day of your life, right? And it's a cliche, because it's totally right. It's totally true that once you find something that you really love, challenges will come, but you have the drive to face them. So find your passion, because you're going to be so genuinely curious to see what's going on, then you're always going to have so many research questions, and it's all going to be very enjoyable and natural.

Maggy Benson:
Absolutely. And I just want to share this final comment with you from Sophie and Nell. They're going to be looking for lichens on their next walk and talk to their mom about dyeing the bottom of their hair so they can look cool like a scientist like you.

Manuela Dal Forno:
Cool, nice.

Maggy Benson:
Awesome. We love it. Science is cool. So get out there, find those lichens. And if you are looking for more types of programs like this, you can join us tomorrow when we will be exploring fossils with Paleontologist Scott Evans and we will be back on Saturday as well, with a program specifically for families with young children. And if you want the full lineup of video webinars, you can go to naturalhistory.si.edu to learn more. Manuela, thank you so much for joining us today, it has been a pleasure learning-

Manuela Dal Forno:
Thank you all.

Maggy Benson:
... all about lichens, and we hope that all of our viewers like us now see lichens everywhere.

Manuela Dal Forno:
Yay!

Maggy Benson:
Yay! Thank you all so much for joining us. We'll see you next time.

Manuela Dal Forno:
Thank you so much. Cheers. I hope you enjoyed and learned a lot of new things about lichens and if you can go outside safely, look for lichens.

Maggy Benson:
See you later.

Archived Webinar

The Zoom webinar with Lichenologist Manuela Dal Forno aired April 16, 2020, as part of the Smithsonian Science How series. Watch a recording in the player above.

Description

Lichenologist Manuela Dal Forno explains the special symbiotic relationship inside each lichen and shows the different steps she takes to study lichens: finding them in nature, looking at them under a microscope, and analyzing their DNA. 

Teaching Resources

Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)

Life Science

3rd Grade

  • 3-LS2-1: Construct an argument that some animals form groups that help members survive.
  • 3-LS3-1: Analyze and interpret data to provide evidence that plants and animals have traits inherited from parents and variation of these traits exists in a group of similar organisms.
  • 3-LS3-2: Use evidence to support the explanation that traits can be influenced by the environment.
  • 3-LS4-3: Construct an argument with evidence that in a particular habitat some organisms can survive well, some survive less well, and some cannot survive at all.

4th Grade

  • 4-LS1-1: Construct an argument that plants and animals have internal and external structures that function to support survival, growth, behavior, and reproduction.

5th Grade

  • 5-LS1-1: Support an argument that plants get the materials they need for growth chiefly from air and water.
  • 5-LS2-1: Develop a model to describe the movement of matter among plants, animals, decomposers, and the environment.

6-8th Grade

  • MS-LS1-5: Construct a scientific explanation based on evidence for how environmental and genetic factors influence the growth of organisms.
  • MS-LS1-6: Construct a scientific explanation based on evidence for the role of photosynthesis in the cycling of matter and flow of energy into and out of organisms.
  • MS-LS2-4: Construct an argument supported by empirical evidence that changes to physical or biological components of an ecosystem affect populations.
     
Resource Type
Videos and Webcasts
Grade Level
3-5, 6-8
Learning Standards
Next Generation Science Standards
Topics
Life Science