MTPR

algae

Exploring The Landscape Of The Pixie Cup Lichen

Jul 2, 2018
Pixie-cup lichen.
Bernard Spragg (PD)

Lying on my stomach on the fringes of the forest, my view is perfect of a colony of tiny lichens. They are perched on top of a rock outcrop, beyond which lies a majestic view eastward across the cold, choppy waters of Flathead Lake and on to the Mission Mountains looming on the opposite shore. 

The lichens resemble pale green miniature goblets, and look as though carefully set on a table of bright green moss.

Algae growth is increasing on Montana’s famed Smith River and scientists don’t know why. So, they’re turning to the public for help.

Excessive algae can deplete oxygen and alter water pH levels, harming fish and other aquatic life in the process. Algae blooms are also a nuisance to humans who encounter them on rivers and lakes.

Flickr user, Jason Hollinger (CC-BY-2.0)

Recently, the work of lichenologist Toby Spribille, a research professor based part-year at the University of Montana-Missoula, has upended the idea that lichen are an alliance between just one fungus and one algae. In many lichens, a mysterious yeast is the third player in this symbiosis. 

Freshwater diatom seen under a scanning electron microscope.
Courtesy UM Electron Microscopy Facility

The bottom of this shallow stream is covered with a complex community of algae, comprising many different species. Probably most abundant of all are the diatoms, many of which secrete a slippery mucus as they travel, leaving the rocks very slick.