Lichens of the Smokies Revealed at Science at Sugarlands

Lichens of the Smokies Revealed at Science at Sugarlands

James Lendemer loves lichens. He loves talking about them, showing pictures of them, and telling others what lichens are and how they are important.

He’s going to be doing just that on October 18 from 1–3 p.m. at Sugarlands Visitor Center in the last instalment of this year’s Science at Sugarlands series, brought to us by Discover Life in America.

James is Assistant Curator in the Institute of Systematic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden and also Assistant Professor in the Department of Biology in the Graduate Center at The City University of New York. He has a Ph.D. in Plant Sciences from CUNY-NYBG. I talked to him recently about his work.

FF: How are you involved with Great Smoky Mountains National Park and what makes it exciting for you?

JL: I’ve been working in the Smokies for over a decade. My colleague Erin Tripp introduced me to the Smokies when we studied lichens in her longterm study plot at Baxter Creek. I fell in love with the southern Appalachians and the Smokies because it is so beautiful and unique. Every ridge and cove is different and, having grown up in urban Philadelphia, it was mind-blowing to be in a place where there was so much biodiversity and so many lichens.

FF: How did you become interested in lichens?

JL: As a high school student I volunteered at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and fell in love with natural history collections and the history of biodiversity discovery in the United States. My mentors there encouraged me to pursue my own studies and somehow I came to lichens, probably because it seemed like no one really knew about them.

FF: What are some typical park lichens that we might recognize?

JL: Lobaria pulmonaria (Lungwort); Usnea (Old Man’s Beard).

FF: Have new lichen species have been discovered through your work?

JL: Yes. Our work in the Smokies has led to the description of dozens of species new to science, and the discovery of hundreds that were not previously known from there. When we started the number was something like 350 and now we’re at 900+.

FF: Why are lichens important for the sustainability of our planet?

JL: They perform essential functions in the environment and, when they are lost, those services they provide are also lost. Things eat them, things live in them, they moderate the temperature and humidity of the forest, and they contribute to nutrient cycling, just to name a few benefits.

FF: What are the main challenges facing lichens and/or those who study them?

JL: Lichens are highly threatened by climate change and habitat loss/changes in habitat. Think about hemlocks: the lichens that grow on those in the southern Appalachians are in trouble. The challenge for those who study them is that we have steadily lost professional capacity in the US because museums and universities and government agencies have either not replaced retired positions, or have replaced them with non-lichenologists.

The other problem is that lichens are thought of as being impossible to know and understand, so they are excluded from most attempts at conservation. That is completely inaccurate, and we are slowly changing that, but states like Tennessee do not conserve lichens the same way they do plants and animals.

FF: What are some of the ways guests of the park help lichens thrive?

JL: By not damaging them when they see them, and by taking only the appreciation of their existence home with them, hopefully realizing that the Smokies are special because they are one of the few places left that has lichens the way they might have been a century ago.