A weekly homage to endangered species, large and small.

Rock gnome lichen

(Original text by Ben Ikenson)

Who cares about an endangered fungus? It’s not exactly what you would call a “charismatic” species. In fact, it basically just sits there, in the manner of a potato sitting in a cupboard or a neighbor’s junked car sitting in his yard. But unlike the neglected tuber or that eyesore across the street, the rock gnome lichen is actually doing something worthwhile as it sits there.

What good are they?

A lichen is a type of fungus that lives symbiotically with algae on rocks or tree trunks. Since they don’t move, lichen directly absorb the elements they need from the air to feed their algae partners, which means they need just the right combination of sun and water to survive. But they’re also small and grow slowly, which frees them from needing to be planted in soil like most plants that require a steady stream of nutrients. Instead, lichen survive in some of the most extreme environments on the planet, including in the highest reaches of the Himalayas and the coldest tundras of the Arctic.

Endemic to the southern Appalachian mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee, the endangered rock gnome lichen is known to colonize where little else might thrive. It inhabits rock faces in high elevations where fog provides the moisture it needs or in river gorges that are cool and damp. The hearty little fungus also absorbs minerals and pollutants in rain, enabling biologists to determine various kinds of pollution.

Lichen help filter pollutants, maintaining the sweet smell of mountain air.

Too much pollution, however, continues to pose a threat to remaining rock gnome lichen populations. In recent years, airborne pollution and the impacts of an exotic insect have contributed to a dramatic decline in the spruce-fir forests adjacent to the cliffs and rock outcrops occupied by the lichen. This may lead to the drying up of sites that are otherwise moist, which the lichen prefers.  Lichens are also impacted by recreational disturbances from hikers and rock climbers that frequent the Appalachian Mountains and trample on the sensitive colonies.

The Fish and Wildlife Service, which listed the species as endangered in 1995, is working with the North Carolina and Tennessee Heritage Programs, the North Carolina Plan Conservation Program, and The Nature Conservancy to determine protection priorities for the remaining populations. In 1997, The Nature Conservancy purchased a 1,575-acre tract in the Plott Balsam Range in the mountains of North Carolina, where the rock gnome lichen grows on high elevation rocky summits.

While it may be hard to sympathize with the plight of a fungus, it may be harder, in the long run, to ignore it.




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