Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Fungi Not From Yuggoth: Lichens

Lichens are the dominant vegetation on 8% of the earth's terrestrial surface. If we stop being anthrocentric, we merely survive in a world dominated by battles between bacteria. and viruses. And even in our macroscopic world, we see trees, cows, and corn. In fact, our world is really worms, ants, and fungus. They simply tolerate us - when they don't devour us.

Today's alien shocker is lichen.

In Lovecraft's day, lichen was known to be some combination of a symbiosis - of fungus and algae. What we are now realizing is that the fungus CULTIVATES algae. It FARMS. (Ants realize this, and use fungus to eat things. They then snip off the blooms for nutrition, and suck the sugars fungus creates through digestion, but the fungus does the work.).

In honor of Lovecraft's penchant for things British, let's choose the British Soldier Lichen, Cladonia cristatella. It's only about 1/4-inch high (6 mm).
http://www.backyardnature.net/lichens.htm British Soldiers are usually found on decaying wood, soil, mossy logs, tree bases, and stumps.

It's pretty cool. The red is shockingly bright on the gray substructure.

Lichens are not always noticed, because they tend to grow heavier at the tops of trees and branches.

I don't have easy access to my pix at the moment. So, I'll use the stock one from Bernheim Forest. The society built an impressive walkout into the treetops in 2006, and one can walk straight out into an alien landscape that only squirrels, tree climbers, and lumberjacks can appreciate.

You quickly realize that trees ain't what they seem from the ground. They teem with life forms that are beyond our everyday ken. A zillion critters, and a hodge-podge of lichen, mistletoe, and witch's broom live in and on the trees.

In essence, a fungus exploits the damp bark of a tree and collects algae which it then uses as a food source. The algae has chlorophyl, soaks up sunlight, and the fungus uses that power to propagate. The algae spheres are entangled in a network of fungal tendrils, and the thick layers pile up year after year in a vast array of complexity.

Lichen are not even the weirdest forms of fungus out there. They just are interesting, easily accessed, and examples of the incredible sophisication these life forms are capable. Can they build spaceships and take advantage of quantum wormholes? Well, maybe not, but they can certainly dazzle ... like this image from a Discover Magazine blog.

Cedar Rust. The cedar apple rust fungus induces galls which in the spring produce wormlike growths.

As soon as I have the energy to upload some of my own photographs, I'll show you "Fungi I Have Known".

Life can be truly alien, and we need to be very afraid.

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