March 26, 2020

Looking for Lichens

Explore your own backyard on the hunt for lichens

Stuck inside? Feeling a little cramped? In need of a nice breath of fresh air? Our backyards and greenspaces offer us many opportunities as places to unwind, play, learn and connect with a world that is often overlooked.

In this activity, explorers of all ages are encouraged to investigate their backyards, neighborhoods or favorite parks where possible, collect data on lichens and enjoy their ecosystem. An ecosystem is made up of the relationship between animals, plants, rocks, fossils, soil, water and even the air we breathe. Let’s go explore yours!

Lichens are a symbiotic organism, made up of algae, fungi and yeast. Symbiosis describes a relationship between two or more living things. Some symbiotic relationships can be harmful, others are mutually beneficial, as is the case of the lichen. While it might look odd to find a tree covered in white, orange or green spots, these lichens are not hurting the rocks or trees they grow on.

Learning Time: 30 minutes
Prep Time: N/A
Age Range: Elementary through high school
Materials List: Lichen field guide, pen or pencil, mist bottle

1. Choose your favorite greenspace to investigate. Don’t worry about the size of your greenspace. The cool thing about lichens is that they will grow anywhere!

2. Quiet yourself. Shutting off music and other background noise allows you to hear all the noises of your chosen ecosystem. Perhaps you’ll hear a woodpecker or an American gray squirrel rustling leaves above you.

3. Look over the backyard Lichen Field Guide in the resource area below.

4. Survey your chosen green space. If on private property make sure you have permission from the landowner.

5. Take some time and reflect on what you see and how it feels to be outside. Take note of what you see, hear, and perhaps, smell—ick! In field science it’s important to document where you collect data, if you haven’t already, record where you are exploring, the time and the weather.

6. Go SLOWLY. Lichens aren’t very large; it’s easy to pass right by them, especially if your ecosystem hasn’t seen rain in a few days. Lichens’ true colors are revealed when wet, so if you want to see all the hidden colors of your ecosystem head out right after a light sprinkle. You might feel silly at first but take your time and examine each branch and rock. Remember, your goal is to find some cool lichens.

7. Observe and take notes. Lichens are incredibly diverse. These symbiotic organisms come in a variety of shapes and sizes. As you study your greenspace, write down or draw the different types of lichens that you see. As you look, you might also see some cool mushrooms or other interesting plant and animal life. Be sure to write down these new discoveries.

Identify what you find. Apps like iNaturalist are great tools that help you identify the organisms you found on your investigation.

Share. Encourage your family members or neighbors to get out and explore by sharing what you’ve found! Keeping a record of the organisms around us allow scientists to track and interrupt sudden changes within an ecosystem.

Explore another greenspace!

How to adjust for younger or older learners

For younger learners, challenge them to find two or three different types of lichen and encourage them to draw what they see. Have them use descriptive words to describe what makes them different or unique
Older learners can utilize the iNaturalist app to identify their lichen specimen and investigate similar species. They can also learn about bioindicators and how lichen may serve in that role as well.