If you live in an area that has distinct seasons, then you know that what you can observe in nature changes as the temperature and weather does. You can’t find insects during the winter, or frost during the summer. However, if you go on a lichen scavenger hunt, it doesn’t matter where you live or what season it is, you’re bound to be successful. Lichens grow on trees, rocks, bare soil and even plastic! You can find them whether you’re deep in the forest or at the playground in a city park.
What is lichen anyway?
Lichen is not a plant, although it sometimes has similar characteristics. Its actually a symbiotic relationship between a fungus and an algae! Scientists have recently discovered (July 2016) that yeast is a third partner in this relationship. So a lichen is a combination of three living organisms that grow together because it is mutually beneficial for all.
One way to remember the members of this partnership is to recall this saying:
Annie Alga and Fred Fungus took a lichen to each other, but their relationship has been on the rocks ever since!
Get it? Lichen grow on rocks!
Of course, this doesn’t take into account the most recent development in lichen science. I’ll let you decide how to incorporate yeast, or make up a new mnemonic device to help you remember.
There are three main groups of lichen: crustose, foliose and fruticose. Crustose are thin and crust-like, and they look like peeling paint on a rock or tree trunk. Foliose are leaf-like (think: foliose = foliage). Fruticose is like a small plant, with branches, almost shrub-like.
Go on a Lichen Scavenger Hunt!
Grab a camera, your magnifying glass, and your favorite nature journal. Step outside and look around. If you look carefully, you are bound to find one because they are well adapted to growing in all sorts of places.
Take a photo, or make a sketch of what you find. I like to use colored pencils to nature journal because it is easier to color my sketches more accurately. See if you can find all three types of lichen. Are there more of one type than another in the area you are searching?
Why study lichen?
There are many science concepts inherent in these fascinating organisms. First, as I mentioned earlier is the ecological relationship called symbiosis. (This can also be used in character education if you are working on cooperation!)
Observing lichen also gives opportunities for practice looking carefully at features and attributes and then classifying organisms into the proper group.
Lichen are a great example of a well adapted organism. If you are studying different habitats or regions of the world, lichen is an example of a living thing that can be found in many places, from the arctic to the desert.
Lichen are part of many food chains, but a particularly fascinating one is that of lichen and reindeer (or caribou) in the arctic. This might be a fun research portion of a food chain or food web unit.
Best of all, a lichen hunt is a great excuse to get some fresh air and practice your outdoor observation skills!
Sarah Benton Feitlinger is a former Preschool-6th science teacher, blogger and science curriculum developer and mom. She is passionate about educating children, and loves anything and everything science! Check out her blog, Share it! Science News for science activities, lessons, science news and other resources for teachers, homeschoolers and parents. Follow her on social media: Facebook,Twitter, Google+ and Pinterest.