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Tiny insect

A Likeness of Lichen

 Words & Photos by Haley Pope

Published on the North American Nature Photography Association Blog

Dewdrops quivered under my breath as I knelt down drawing my face but a couple inches away. Like sapphires, emeralds, and canary diamonds they glistened reflecting the vibrant organisms beneath. Like tiny, round mirrors – or rather, like tiny magnifying glasses each micro detail was brought to prominence. Upon closer inspection, even my face, upside down, reflected back at me in as many copies as there were dewdrops. They jiggled and jostled, yet resisted the force of my breath and persisted in perfect cupola-shapes held together by cohesion.


As mesmerizing as the water drops were, I was here to photograph what lay beneath the transparent molecules. I drew a breath and blew. The water bubbles rolled away and revealed my intended subject. Tortuous as brain tissue, crusty as a scab, yet as significant as any other organism: lichen.


Which is actually a misnomer. Lichens are not single organisms. The scaly-looking growths, often incorrectly believed to be plants or fungi, are actually composite organisms arising from a symbiotic relationship between fungi and algae or cyanobacteria. The algae or cyanobacteria benefit from the fungi, which gather moisture and nutrients from the surrounding environment. Without the fungi, lichens would not be able to survive since they don’t have root systems, as do plants. However, like plants the algae or cyanobacteria produce food by photosynthesis, turning sunlight into energy, which in turn benefits the fungi. It’s a perfect cooperative arrangement. 

A beady red-eyed bug spotted on a log at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado.

The scaly-looking growths are composite organisms arising from a symbiotic relationship between fungi and algae or cyanobacteria. It’s a perfect cooperative arrangement.

Yellow lichen
Lichen on rocks

The rocks along the Mesa Trail in Boulder, Colorado are covered in the most incredibly colorful and uniquely shaped lichen. All you have to do is stop and stoop down to them. LEFT: This shows the bright yellow crustose lichen, Pleopsidium spp.

RIGHT: RIGHT: This shows the species, Rhizoplaca chrysoleuca, pale green with orange cup-like structures enveloping the rock crystals. 

Biological soil crust consists of cyanobacteria, lichen, fungi, mosses, bacteria, and green algae. Soil crusts help prevent soil erosion and aid water retention. They take hundreds of years to form and grow, thus are fragile desert soil communities. Taken in Canyonlands National Park, Utah.

Around 20,000 species of lichens are recognized, although each lichen is actually made up of a species of fungi and a species of algae or cyanobacteria. In an attempt to keep their classification simple, lichens share the same scientific name as their host fungus. If all lichen were lumped together, they would cover an area equivalent to the United States of America, approximately 6% of the Earth's land surface.


They grow in a variety of habitats ranging from warm sea level to cold alpine elevations, and on top of practically any surface. Where you are most likely noticed them is on rocks, bark, leaves, mosses, or dangling from branches. What’s more, lichens come in diverse shapes too. Some look like tiny leafless branches, called fruticose, while are curly leaf-like structures, called foliose, or crusty flakes that peel like paint, called crustose.

Once the water was gone, I raised my camera, a Pentax K-7 with a Sigma DG macro 50mm f/2.8 lens. I leaned in to within several inches of the rock surface and through the viewfinder noted the unusual shapes and textures. It was hard to tell where one lichen began and another ended. They merged together, one overtaking the other, trying to smother the rock surface beneath. In one square inch, tiny orange and green cups protruded from the surface of the rock like octopus suckers searching for something to grab. Others resembled sea anemones. It was like wading through a terrestrial intertidal pool.

Pixie Cup Lichen
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