Written by Priya Singh, an 18-year-old student
First of all, let’s know about what lichens are:
You must have seen Lichens – they are the green stuff you see growing on tree branches sometimes (look at the image below)
Liches are born out of a symbiotic partnership or relationship between fungus and alga. They have more characteristics of fungus, but the colour of lichens depends on which kind of algae it is made of.
Now the question is, where do they grow?
They grow almost anywhere and everywhere but mostly in places with more moisture. Similar to plants, they also perform the process of photosynthesis. The algae in the lichens produce carbohydrates and the fungi use the carbohydrates to grow and produce. They grow at places that have sufficient sunlight, moisture and minerals. There are about sixteen hundred species of lichens known all over the world. The general structure of lichen composes of layers of fungus and algae: – Cortex, Algal layer, Medulla, Basal attachment.
Fun fact – Lichens existed much before humans did! They are considered to be the oldest living organisms on the planet.
Now let’s find out why lichens are important for the environment:
Lichens are an important part of the food web in several ecosystems. As they produce their own food they are known as producers. They corrode the rocks and accumulate a certain amount of minerals and organic matter.
Lichens can be used as an indicator of air quality. National Park Service (NPS) And United States Forest Service USFS scientists use lichens as a bio-monitor to assess air quality across the country. Lichens also provide oxygen which is essential to survive during the process of photosynthesis and in this way they help in reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere.
They are important in nutrient cycling because they can be decomposers and are photosynthetic. They produce hundreds of distinct chemicals, including pigments and they all have antibiotic properties. When they die they become a base of minerals containing organic matter on which other plants can grow. They have the ability to separate the minerals by eroding rocks and such breaking down of rocks helps in the creation of soil. This breaking down process of rocks is known as pedogenesis. They produce soil by entrapping water, dust etc.
Lichens also provide antibiotic protection against bacteria. They have the ability to absorb nitrogen directly from the air. Lichens also serve as a great habitat for organisms and provide nesting materials for birds. They protect trees from rain, wind and snow.
Lichens are ecologically important as they are the earliest settlers on barren rocks and are good survivors. The major ecological importance of lichens are that they are poikilohydric, which means that they can absorb moisture in big quantities and can survive for longer if water is not available. As they depend on moisture, they might dry up from time to time but replenish themselves back to life on rainfall or access to moisture.
Fun Fact – Humans have used lichens for various purposes such as for clothing and decoration. Today, lichens are used in toothpastes, deodorants and other products for their antibiotic properties. They are also used in making something called litmus paper, which is a paper that indicates the acidity or alkalinity of a substance.
Did you know that these humble organisms have so many uses?
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