by Whit Gibbons

August 10, 2014

With schools starting across the country, I asked my grandson Parker what kinds of ecology projects a teacher might challenge students with at the beginning of the year.

Parker is going into the sixth grade, but we were looking for projects that would be appropriate for schoolchildren of any age. After a few missteps that would require using binoculars, setting traps, or keeping live plants or animals in the classroom, we decided on the perfect project. Teach students about lichens.

Lichens comprise two species masquerading as one. The two species live together in the paragon of a mutualistic partnership, with each providing for the other and neither being able to make it on their own.

Although they look like a single organism, they actually represent remarkable and complex associations between fungi and algae.

Neither the fungal nor algal species has the ability to survive alone, and each contributes to their joint survival in special and essential ways.

Algae have chlorophyll and can therefore convert sunlight into usable energy through photosynthesis. A fungus has no chlorophyll; instead it is able to absorb vital nutrients from the surface it grows on.

So, algae provide energy to the association, fungi supply minerals, and the combination functions like an independent, free-living organism. In addition to providing a form of nourishment, the physical structure of the fungus protects the algae from exposure.

Lichens offer opportunities for a classroom science project that is all-inclusive, regardless of where the classroom is. Lichens live on walls and fences in cities, on fenceposts and barns in the country, and on tree limbs, dead or alive, everywhere.

Anybody anywhere can find lichens. And what a great organism for the classroom.

Lichens are inoffensive to virtually everyone. I have never heard of someone with lichenophobia, and if I did, I would be suspicious.

Lichens are not poisonous, don’t smell bad, and do not have thorns or briars. Every child can be expected to bring a sample to school.

With only a little explanation and guidance, any student from kindergarten to college can find a lichen. The teacher can walk outside and find an example on the school wall or on the nearest tree branch to bring right into the classroom.

The world of lichens is even more fascinating when observed through a microscope. When I mentioned to Parker that some schools might not have microscopes, he pointed out that a simple magnifying glass can reveal their intricate structures and allow comparisons between different lichens.

Finding out about lichen biology can be supplemented in the classroom through library reference books, and the Internet will have numerous links to sites about these intriguing organisms that are part fungus and part algae.

As with any web-based information, be certain that you are learning from an authoritative source. However, you aren’t likely to be led astray on the topic of lichens.

Lichens provide an ideal living conduit for discussion of a variety of biological topics, depending on the grade level, including symbiosis, mutualism, chlorophyll, and photosynthesis. Reindeer moss, perhaps the best-known lichen, serves as a basic food source for caribou in the Arctic tundra, which in turn are a staple for wolves of the region.

What an excellent opportunity for a discussion of food webs and the interconnectivity of different parts of the living world.

Lichens are one of the most ubiquitous yet understated components of the living world. They can be found in everyone’s yard and every local park from the tropics to the poles.

They come in myriad colors. Lichens of green, gray, orange, brown, yellow, or red are not uncommon. How many different kinds can the students find to bring into class to examine?

Of course, you do not have to be a teacher or a student to find enjoyment in looking at and learning about the vast array of this fascinating group of organisms that are all around us.

Parker will be doing so whether he’s in the classroom or not.

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