Wolf Lichen: It's not a Harry Potter spell ... it's Letharia Vulpina

Do you ever see some bright green, shrubby looking creature on a gravel ride? This organism is likely Letharia Vulpina (and no it does not have magic or poisonous powers like a spell) which is also knows as Wolf Lichen. Bryologist, mycologist, and lichenologist Tim Wheeler works to dedicate his life studies towards nonvascular plants and over the last 20 years now holds 16,000 specimens in his collections (some of which are named after him!) Joining us as Wheeler describes some fascinating tidbits on this creature we commonly call Wolf Lichen.

Find out more about Tim Wheeler: https://timwheelerphotography.com/

Tim also suggests looking here for more cool lichen things! https://www.waysofenlichenment.net/


Kira Corbett 0:20
Biologist, Mycologist, and Lichenologist Tim Wheeler works to dedicate his life studies towards non vascular plants and over the last 20 years now holds 16,000 specimens in his collections, some of which are actually named after him. Joining us today, Wheeler describes some fascinating tidbits on this creature we commonly call wolf lichen.

Tim Wheeler 0:45
There’s something like 22,000 named species of lichen in the world. So there’s lots of diversity out there. And we’re describing about a thousand new species of fungi to science every year across the globe. what’s that tree species and three new species of fungi to science every day.

Kira Corbett 1:03
Well, Tim, thanks so much for joining us today here at Dirty FreeHub.

Tim Wheeler 1:07
You bet.

Kira Corbett 1:07
I commonly see these bright yellow, green, mossy looking shrub like plants of some sort and covering surface. What exactly is this, Wolf?

Tim Wheeler 1:20
So the wolf lichen is Letharia Vulpina, and that’s the scientific name. So organisms have a scientific name, a genus and a species. What’s interesting about lichens is that they’re not just one organism. So they’re a composite of many different organisms. And so that name wolf lichen describes the whole lichen. But it’s scientific name. The theory of Letharia Vulpina actually just describes the major fungal component of the lichen. There’s algae in there and there’s green algae in that lichen as well. It also has its own scientific name. And actually recent studies in that area specifically have found a whole host of other organisms, other fungi, other bacteria, etc.. And so it’s kind of good to think of a lichen as more of like a mini ecosystem than a single organism, one organism.

Kira Corbett 2:09
Where are they usually found and where do they usually grow?

Tim Wheeler 2:13
It grows mostly in western North America from Mexico up to Alaska. There’s a couple of specimens in northeastern Canada, but it also grows in Europe, continental Europe, from Scandinavia down to Italy, here in western North America, it’s actually quite abundant, quite common. You see it on any it mostly prefers conifer trees, so pine trees and fir trees, usually at middle to higher elevations. some trees can just be completely covered with this yellowy green chartreuse shrubby creature. And it’s not all necessarily the Letharia Vulpina. There are three or four other species of the Thar in western North America and they all kind of look similar. There’s the same sharp, fruity yellow green color shrubby, but there are some microscopic and some small differences, and then oftentimes the genetics is quite different as well. But from from 20 feet away, they all look the same and they can grow intermixed on these trees. Rarely does it grow on rocks. Sometimes in the right conditions, you can see it growing over moss on rocks, but it prefers to be up in the trees. It’s not taking nutrients. It’s not a parasite. It doesn’t hurt the tree. lichens in general are very slow growing and needles and leaves were always grow faster and outcompete lichens for space and light. And it’s only when a tree dies so the needles fall off, the leaves fall off that all of a sudden there’s all this light. And so then you sometimes can get what we call a bloom. And the lichens will actually increase on these dead trees. And so oftentimes people think the lichens are killing the trees, but they’re not. They’re just hanging on there. They get all their nutrients from the sun. So the algal, the algae in the lichen photosynthesize. Just like other plants producing sugars. They share those sugars with the fungal part, which is really good at capturing moisture and other minerals. And so they work together and they can often grow in places where the individual parts can’t.

Kira Corbett 4:03
Yeah, they’re definitely very interesting little creatures, as you put it. Like kind of seen them as almost a little mystical or magical because they’re just so different

Tim Wheeler 4:12
They’re so different. In Europe this is actually an endangered species used to be very common across northern Europe 100 years ago. But because of air pollution and hundreds of years of air pollution, it’s actually been extirpated in many countries. There’s only a handful of countries now that exist, and in those countries there’s only a few populations left. So it’s a very interesting phenomenon because it’s so abundant here in the west I don’t have any definitive evidence that some authority is coming back, but I think the trend for lichens in general is that they’re starting to come back.

Kira Corbett 4:40
Yeah. This species of fungi? I guess. Are they poisonous?

Tim Wheeler 4:46
One of the cool things about lichens is they produce all these what we call secondary metabolites, and these are just chemicals that they produce for various reasons. Some of them are for like a U.V. blocking agent. So they protect lichens from the sun. Oftentimes you see like in the tops of mountains or the tops of trees where they get hit with heavy sunlight. Some of them do that. Some of them are anti her memory, so they are poisonous or they taste bad, they’re bitter. And so that slows down little insects and micro invertebrates and other things from eating too much of them. And material in particular produces this chemical called volcanic acid. And that’s what makes the yellow color. historically recipes that trappers or trappers used to use to kill wolves and coyotes and stuff like that. And what they would do is grab a whole lot of this lichen kind of crush it up, power it up, mix it with glass, broken glass and nails, and then stuff that into a carcass of another animal. And then the wolves and coyotes would come and feed on that consuming the little area and dying. It turns out you have to use a pretty strong concentration of volcanic acid to kill a mammal. it was most likely the ground glass and the nails were actually killing them more than the wolf lichen per se. But yes, it is toxic, too. It’s interesting. There’s some there’s studies that say it’s toxic to meat eating mammals only, but like mice and some ungulates, deer and goats and things can eat it. However, it is bitter that volcanic acid is very bitter. And while caribou and deer and stuff like maybe 50 80% of their diet in the winter will be composed of lichens, there’s always tastier lichens to eat than with you.

Kira Corbett 6:24
has wolf lichen being used for any specific purpose historically. And how about today? If there has been purposes?

Tim Wheeler 6:30
You can get really cool colors for dying wool and other clothing and textiles. a lot of lichens have been used as a fixative for like perfume and dyes and stuff like that. So that makes the color and the smell last longer. And kind of like the popular thing nowadays is people collect lithograph for miniature train sets, I guess trees or in terrariums or other decorative creative art stuff. There is some protein in there, but that valproic acid is not something you really want to be eating. it’s not really used for food, for human and lichens in general aren’t really used as human food. Historically they were in certain cultures, but more of kind of a famine item. It’s not like a delicacy that people really go after.

Kira Corbett 7:14
Yeah, I imagine if it’s already bitter for, like, animals, I can’t imagine for humans.

Tim Wheeler 7:19
There’s ways you can prep it and prepare it, like you can mash and boil and cook anything off so you could make it more palatable. I mean I don’t, I don’t recommend just eating, throwing things in your mouth willy nilly without some expertise. But yes,

Kira Corbett 7:32
Rumor has it that mountain goats rely on it as a food source. Is this a myth or a fact or something? A cure is completely made up.

Tim Wheeler 7:40
Honestly, I don’t have any specific evidence that mountain goats love this lichen, but they can they do eat other lichens. There are these like insect grown rocks called rock traipsed. They’ll nibble on those. And there are other shrubby hair lichens like little area, different genus and species that don’t have those chemicals. So GEH here in Montana and caribou and reindeer up in the north, it’s in the wintertime. Something like 80% of their diet can be composed of lichens so they can rummage through the snow on the ground, lichens or when the snow depths get deep enough, they can reach the lichens hanging from the trees birds make nests use it as nesting material. It camouflages nicely and there’s a whole suite of little invertebrates, little insects and things that live in the lichens. So it’s a little ecosystem in an ecosystem.

Kira Corbett 8:25
I know we talked a little bit about where lichen lives, but where can you find it? Typically, if you are in an area and, you know, keeping your eyes a little open to see where it’s at.

Tim Wheeler 8:34
Yeah. So I think most people first recognize it because you’ll see like a a fairly old conifer and the whole trunk is just covered with a bright yellow green, like almost every square inch is lichen. And that’s great to see because that means that it’s a good indicator of healthy, clean air.

Kira Corbett 8:51
That is wild. is there ways that cyclists, you know, if they see area, if there’s a is there ways that can help protect it or things they can do in their daily life to encourage it, to grow,

Tim Wheeler 9:03
That’s a good question. You know, these things are fairly slow growing. And the interesting thing about the thorough Bob penis specifically is it reproduces asexually. So what does that mean? It doesn’t have sex. Introduce children. Essentially what it does is little pieces of the lichen break off and they wash away in the rain. They stick to an animal’s fur bird feathers or the blue in the wind. And when they land again on another surface, if the conditions are right, that little fragment is a little clone and it’ll grow into a new whole lichen. you know, if you you could if you’re doing a big, you know, hundred mile ride through the mountains and you grab a chunk of that area at the beginning and you kind of crumble it in your hand as you’re riding, you’re essentially spreading those little tropicals, those little clones everywhere along your trail. And potentially they could land in the right place and start new lichen. But most of these sites, when you get to get to get up to them, you’ll see there’s almost every branch, every trunk is covered with this stuff already. So they’re not here in western North America. They’re not endangered or threatened. I think the biggest threat would be air pollution. Second would be logging. but, you know, even, you know, you hear things like the dust from the roads and stuff like cars and gravel roads push up dust and that can coat vegetation on the side of the road. it doesn’t seem to bother lichens. There is actually some evidence that it helps them. So the minerals in the crushed rock and the gravel actually get deposited on the lichen and even some plants can use it too. And then when it rains, it gets washed off, it gets incorporated in the soil into the the bark and stuff and the lichens can use those minerals to grow.

Kira Corbett 10:34
is fascinating. I would never think for such a small little creature.

Tim Wheeler 10:37
Everybody’s seen it. If you are spending time in the west in the mountains you’ve seen it, you might not know what it is, but it’s pretty common.

Kira Corbett 10:45
I didn’t even know there was lichenologist, but that gives me a lot of respect for this sort of field because of how microscopic some of the stuff can be.

Tim Wheeler 10:53
We’re we’re all kind of interested in the fungal tree of life. So fungi have been on the planet for billions of years and, you know, they kind of control we like to think as ecologists, they control everything from nutrient cycling to erosion, all that stuff. So we think they’re pretty important and there’s lots to be discovered. So.

Kira Corbett 11:12
Well, thank you so much, Tim. This was actually very interesting to learn about, especially seeing something so common around here.

Tim Wheeler 11:19
And good luck. Let me know if you guys have any other questions

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