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SNAPSHOT: An Endangered Lichen

Lichen grow out of a symbiotic relationship between fungus and algae, and they’re ecologically important, serving as forest fertilizer and bird’s nests material. Some 20,000 varieties exist around the world, but one variety known as the rock gnome lichen is found only in the Southern Appalachian Mountains of Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. It grows on rocks at high elevations and in river gorges, and it’s an endangered species due to environmental degradation and an invasive tree pest. It also may be an indicator of air quality, with low levels of species diversity found in regions with high levels of lung cancer.  

A salamander rests on the rock gnome lichen

To learn more about rock gnome lichen, researchers sequenced the lichen’s genome and studied its reproductive process. Their findings appeared in the American Journal of Botany, with Jessica Allen as lead author.

“This study ultimately shows that the rock gnome lichen is genetically distinct from one location to the next — even when the habitats are similar,” Professor Elizabeth Alter (York College, The Graduate Center), whose lab conducted the study, said in an interview. That means destruction of any localized habitat could “reduce the diversity and further jeopardize this lichen.”

SNAPSHOT is SUM’s new afternoon science brief.