New lichen species found on Point Reyes (Point Reyes Light, 10.16.2008)

Lecanora simeonensis

Lecanora simeonensis (photo by J.C. Lendemer)

Kerry Knudsen walked up to an old corral near the visitor center in Bear Valley on a Thursday morning in July. Holding his magnifying hand lens, a 10-power jeweler’s loupe, to his eye, he looked at the wooden fence, and within five minutes knew he was seeing a lichen previously unknown to science.

The new species will be called Lecanora simeonensis, and its story began nearly two years ago on the weathered conifer wood of another abandoned corral in San Simeon. “The minute I saw it, I knew we didn’t have anything described like that,” recalled Knudsen, lichen curator at the Herbarium of University of California, Riverside. “I knew it was something new when I first saw it, and then the process is to find more of it.”

Along with the first specimen found in San Simeon, Knudsen found this lichen in two other locations in San Luis Obispo County. He had already begun a research paper describing this new species when he found the sample in Point Reyes National Seashore (PRNS), the only specimen identified in Marin County so far.

The visitor center was the first stop on a northern coastal California field trip that preceded the sixth annual International Association of Lichenology (IAL) symposium, which took place from July 13 to 19 at Asilomar on the Monterey Peninsula.

“Twenty-four lichenologists from all over the world came,” said Lawrence Glacy who—along with Larry St. Clair of Brigham Young University and Tom Nash of Arizona State University—coordinated the IAL field trip from July 9 to 13. “I thought we might be able to add a little bit to the existing knowledge in the park.”

Lichens typically are made up of fungi and algae, which exist symbiotically. A lichen survey done at Point Reyes in 2001-2002 found 88 different species of lichen in the park, according to Ben Becker, director of the Pacific Coast Science and Learning Center at PRNS. However, many of those samples have not been reviewed properly by taxonomists, so the verification by Glacy and his colleagues may change this number.

“There were a lot of species not on the list. There are new species. There are species that have already been named but just haven’t been collected yet. There are also species moving in from the north or south,” Glacy said. “I thought lichenologists with specialties might lead to new discoveries. But finding is one thing, identifying is another.”

Lecanora simeonensis has four characteristics that identify it. It’s this suite of characters—which include its two ways of reproduction, sexually and asexually, its spore size, and its particular chemistry—that makes it distinctly unique. “I was happy to find it at Point Reyes,” Knudsen said. “I immediately recognized it.”

Knudsen has already found 17 species of lichen. “Almost every survey I do, I turn up another species,” he said. “There are 15,000 lichen species worldwide, and that number will probably rise to 25,000. There are still a lot to be found.”

But at a time when new lichens are being discovered, some are becoming rarer. “They’re running out of habitat,” Knudsen said. “Lichens grow very slowly, so they’re usually only on habitats that are undisturbed. When there are old wood fences that aren’t treated, we always check there.”

Of the four locations where Lecanora simeonensis is found, only one was a natural habitat—a rotting oak log in Montana d’Oro in San Simeon County. Elsewhere, this lichen has only been found on wooden fences.

“We should be finding them on logs and trees, but so far we aren’t seeing them. Some substrates they need are simply not growing back. Old wood fences are very important,” Knudsen said. “It shows there’s some disturbance going on—fires, clearing the land, building farms. Right there you have a habitat problem. Lichens just don’t come back if they get really knocked out.”

Several other species of lichen are also only known from a few spots. Old-growth chaparral, for instance, was once common in Southern California, but with increased human-caused fires, this habitat is becoming increasingly hard to find, as are the lichens associated with them. “Part of it is a natural process, but where human impacts affect biodiversity, they also affect lichen,” said Glacy.

These surveys add to the National Park Service’s All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory. Recently, PRNS began looking at the smaller things, such as fungi and lichen. “The main point is to try to discover some of the little things in the park,” Becker said. “There are fewer specialists out there that study them, and I think they haven’t always been a management concern. If we do find species that are rare, we ask: are these things that we need to be conserving?”

Glacy is starting to develop management plans with the park for the fences, barns, and unique cultural spots that are old and important to preserve for the lichen. “Old fences with lichen break down. They could scrape the lichen off or replace it, throw it away, and put a new one up. Their interest is to keep fences in shape. My interest is to keep the lichen on the fence. Now we’re working together to prioritize and protect.”

Lecanora simeonensis will be introduced into scientific literature in the spring, when Knudsen and his colleague James C. Lendemer of the New York Botanical Garden will publish in the journal Opuscula Philolichenum.

“It appears that the recent 2008 surveys will certainly add new species to the [PRNS] list, as well as some new species to science, which is quite exciting,” Becker said.

~ by Janet Fang on October 16, 2008.

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