For the Love of Lichens

For the love of Lichen


If you're wandering through the woods, you may come across something that resembles a twig, moss, or even a leaf.

But what you might not know is that it's a living organism known as lichen.

Tim Wheeler, a lab manager and naturalist at the University of Montana, captures the beauty and colors of these organisms.

Our partner 'Science Friday' has the story.


So, most people think a lichen is a moss.

That's kind of where it ends.

To the untrained eye, it could just look like another branch or another leaf or another twig or even a piece of bird poop or a piece of gum on a rock.

You know, they don't understand them.

If you don't know that it's alive and it's an organism, you might gloss over that.

These things are often very ephemeral, and so you need a way to capture that -- you know, the beauty, the colors, the shapes -- before these things wither away naturally.

You start looking at lichens and you look at this finer scale, you realize the actual microtopography of that landscape is actually huge.

Lichens are a mini ecosystem.

It's not one organism.

My name's Tim Wheeler.

I am a lab manager at the University of Montana.

But kind of my passion is fungi, specifically lichens.

By trade, I'm not a photographer.

I consider myself a naturalist.

I took a forestry class with a professor, and he pointed out these lichens growing on the trees.

And he was like, 'Hey, we really don't know anything about these things.' And that kind of piqued my interest.

So, I just kind of casually started collecting them.

The 10th or 12th lichen that I collected, I didn't recognize it.

I thought it was cool and new, so I sent it off, and it turned out to be a new species and science.

You know, that doesn't happen if you study birds.

And I kind of got hooked.

Historically, a lichen was considered part algae and part fungi.

As we've dug into these things deeper, we're finding that it's more complex than just these two partners.

There's other fungi in there.

There's other algae, cyanobacteria, other bacteria, all working together, basically, in this little mini ecosystem.

The fungus produces the structure, right?

So, think of it as, like, a little greenhouse, which inside that, they're growing algae.

The algae are photosynthesizing.

The fungus provides water and other nutrients and minerals and stuff like that.

The diversity of lichens is huge.

We have foliose, which are your big, leafy lichens.

So, they have an upper and lower surface.

You have these fruticose lichens, and these are your 3-D or branching lichens.

And then you have the crust lichens, which are kind of crusty, right?

If you can just draw a crazy shape in your head, in your mind, that probably exists in the lichen world.

That's what I like about lichens.

You have these things that are flat and boring.

You have these things that are incredibly long-lived and incredibly branching.

Any complex 3-D structure you can probably imagine, we can probably find an example mimicking that.

It is exciting when you find that perfect specimen.

It has all the characters.

It's in, you know, pristine condition.

You want to be able to have someone to look at it from a human perspective, but you also want to be able to show those smaller details all in one shot, right?

And so my photography skills grew out of a need to illustrate these specimens, these species.

The collection started because you needed to come back to kind of verify your I.D.s.

Back here, I have, I think, just over 16,000 specimens.

So, that's 17 years of collecting.

I have kind of one wall that I've been trying to contain it to.

No, I don't think I'm ever gonna stop collecting lichens, so my numbers are only gonna go up.

You know, it's kind of like a checklist, kind of like birders have a life list.

You feel good that you've captured that organism.

And, so, once I pull it out, unwrap it, we're taking high-magnification photos.

At such high magnifications that we're dealing with, you might only have one little plane that can be in focus.

So in order to overcome that shallow depth of field, my camera is attached to a rail, and every 125 microns, it can take a picture.

That gets sent to the computer, this program, Helicon Focus, and they stack them.

They take every little sharp bit from every layer and make it into one continuous, sharp image from front to back, and the result is one picture.

You know, when I first started stacking pictures, I would, like -- Everything was in sharp.

Nothing was out of focus.

Because I thought that's what was important.

But as I got into it more, I kind of shifted more towards the art.

A little bit of depth, a little bit out of focus in the background actually makes the rest of that stuff pop a little more.

Sometimes, I'll wet it, if it needs to be rehydrated.

You know, I might have this boring little gray lichen on a rock, but when it gets wet, it could kind of unfold and kind of almost flower and turn into this brilliant blue-green thing.

It's always exciting to see them come alive.

You can almost take the specimen out of its habitat, kind of raise it up to this, like, glorified color or shape.

Everything can be perfect.

I think a lot of scientists -- you know, they have the little point-and-shoot camera.

For me, that just didn't cut it.

You know, I needed to make them, you know, the center of attention.

I don't think the general public knows the importance of them.

They're notoriously sensitive to air pollution, to changing temperatures, and so if you have a changing climate, what's the first thing that's gonna respond are these fungi.

You can kind of get a trend of how your climate is changing because these lichens respond so quickly.

So I hope my photography aids in the just general awareness of lichens and how cool these things and how important they are.