What do you think of when you hear the names Pixie Cups, Dead Man’s Fingers, Devil’ Matchsticks or Fairy Barf? These names, among many others, are the layman’s names for different types of lichens. A lichen’s name usually fits its description.

Cousins to plants, lichens are slow growing and long-lived. Lichens survive in areas where no plants can thrive, in extreme climates and at extreme altitudes. Attached to bare rock, dead wood, bone, humus, buildings, rusty metal, they can turn down their metabolic functions, going into dormancy, when conditions get too severe for them.

They are pioneer species, meaning initially first on the scene, breaking down rock which in turn releases its inorganic nutrients. They prepare the ground for others by catching soil particles on which plants can germinate.

Lichens have practical purposes for man. The gaudy purple and red of Arctic species have been brewed into beer and used in vodka and molasses production. The lichen dubbed Rock Tripe, when cooked in a manner similar to poke salat, served explorers and native peoples as emergency food. The lichen Witch’s Hair made suitable fire tender on the Arctic slopes. Native peoples use the presence of some lichens when hunting as an indicator to which animal species are active in the area; the presence of Jewel lichen indicates ground squirrels in an area.

Lichen is an integral part of the diet of many animal species in the Arctic. Lichens are carbohydrate-rich. Caribou, for example, subsist on an almost exclusive diet of ten pounds of reindeer lichen per animal daily. Unfortunately, if overgrazing ever occurs, it can take up to 200 years for complete restoration of the lichen population. The animals have developed an innate sense to avoid grazing the younger lichen patches.

As lichens absorb nutrients, they cannot differentiate between beneficial and harmful compounds. During the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, fallout dispersed over vast areas. Even in Norway, where indigenous peoples used the reindeer for food, thousands of those deer had to be put down because their meat was contaminated. To this day, the deer from that area still contain unacceptable levels of radioactive residue.

Lichens are also used in studies tracking glacial receding - lichens are often the first life to appear after the ice melts.

They have been studied at the International Space station and have been found to survive as long as ten days in space without damage.

Unnoticed by many, we need to give the humble lichen the scientific respect its due.