Lichen is everywhere. It grows on sidewalks, rocks, trees, roofs and in frigid tundras, arid deserts and even contaminated environments.
You just have to look for it, says lichenologist and Eastern Washington University biology professor Jessica Allen.
"They're really obvious out across the landscape if you're paying attention, and then you look closer and realize you didn't even see them before you started looking," Allen says. "There are over 20,000 species and we're still describing them. We're not even close to learning [all species that] exist on the planet, let alone where they live."
Looking for lichen in the field is one of Allen's favorite research activities. In the past few years she's co-discovered three lichen species, two of which are named after some well-known — and perhaps unexpected — luminaries: Oprah Winfrey and Dolly Parton.
Dolly Parton's namesake lichen is the Japewiella dollypartoniana, which grows on the bark of trees in the Appalachian Mountains near where the musician grew up. On the trip leading to its discovery, Allen and fellow lichenologist James Lendemer had been listening to Parton's music on repeat. The rarer Oprah's Sunshine lichen (Hypotrachyna oprah) was named because it was also discovered near the media maven's hometown. The species notably glows bright yellow under ultraviolet light.
Both lichens were intentionally named after women because historically so very few species are, Allen says.
"We decided to name a few after not just any women, but those who've made a huge impact in the past century."
Allen has been studying lichens since she was an undergraduate biology major at Eastern almost a decade ago. She now holds a doctorate of philosophy in biology and continues to research lichen diversity, conservation and genomics.
Though it may seem like a very small and insignificant species in the grand circle of life, lichen is a critical habitat and food source for many organisms. It's also an indicator of ecological health and can tell us things about air quality, climate change and even genetics.
"Animals are very reliant on lichens," Allen says. "Birds use them to make nests because they repel water and are antibiotic. Large mammals use them as a winter forage; elk and deer and moose eat them in winter when there is less vegetation. Caribou [in the tundra] are completely dependent on them for a part of their diet."
The algae living in some lichens convert nitrogen from the atmosphere into an essential nutrient for plants. In arid climates, lichen growing on the soil crust helps prevent erosion. Scientists are also able to use lichen to monitor air quality and pollution, Allen notes.
"If you go to a place and there are none — they've all died — that probably tells you something about the air quality, that it's not great," she says.
In her position with EWU, Allen is working on several lichen identification projects, including on the Palouse, at Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge and North Cascades National Park. In Turnbull alone, more than 300 unique species have been logged. Simultaneously, Allen is also studying the genetic diversity of lichens.
As evidenced, lichens play a pretty important role in the world's ecosystems and human life. Which is why a big portion of Allen's research on lichens involves conservation efforts, such as reintroducing them to areas they've been eradicated, and figuring out how to protect those that are threatened elsewhere. Of around 1,200 federally listed endangered species in the U.S., only two are lichens, she says.
"We know that natural systems don't function without all the pieces of the puzzle, and lichens are an important part of that. Generally they are underappreciated in conservation or not considered at all, but that's something that, in my personal research and a lot of others, lichenologists are working on — to bring the importance of them to light and get them added to the same level of conservation attention as other large species."