Year of Natural Scotland – Lichens in Miniature
Is it a plant? An animal?
No it’s a fungus, well actually it is a lichen, a compound organism comprising a fungus, an alga and sometimes a cyanobacterium. They co-exist in a mutually beneficial partnership: the algae and/or cyanobacteria are protected from the environment by the fungal body, and the fungus receives nutrients from the algae which are produced by photosynthesis. The cyanobacteria also have the ability to fix nitrogen. This complex relationship enables lichens to colonise a very wide range of habitats.
Some are common and fairly ubiquitous, others more specialised with very particular requirements, some grow very, very slow whilst others grow relatively quickly often colonising new areas: everything from concrete and tree bark to old peat diggings. I particularly like the group known as cladonia, probably because of their very tactile fruiting (spore producing) structures which give rise to their common name of pixie cups. They are small so you need to get close to appreciate their splendor – which, in this part of the world, usually involves kneeling in a peat bog.
The genus Cladonia also includes reindeer moss, but that will have to wait for another Year of Natural Scotland post.