Thursday, January 22, 2009
Moose and deer 'lichen' these unique organisms
One of the things I love about the outdoors is that there is no end to the stuff you can learn about it.
Take the rocks and trees for example. Did you ever pay much notice to the "plants" that grow on them?
Chances are they're lichens which are a life form unto themselves. Lichens are not one organism but are at least two and sometimes three. They're fungi that have either algae or cyanobacteria (photosynthetizing bacteria) living within them in a symbiotic relationship. The fungus protects its photosynthetic partner which then helps feed the fungus.
I first became aware of the world of lichens in the woods behind our house in Nolalu, near Thunder Bay. In the winter I would cut down dead balsam fir that are loaded with long Spanish-moss-like lichens which we always called Old Man's Beard. Whitetail deer are nuts for this stuff. I've had them rush in to start eating the lichens at the top end of the tree while I was using a chainsaw to cut up the other end.
Moose also love it as do woodland caribou.
I probably looked at Old Man's Beard for 15 years before it occurred to me that there was more than one type.
It was my good fortune this winter to get a set of great field guides for Minnesota and Northwestern Ontario. One of them is about lichens.
I would recommend these books to anyone. They are the North Woods Naturalist Series and are produced by Kollath & Sons Publishing in Duluth, MN.
Besides the book on lichens I got others on north woods spiders, dragonflies and butterflies.
I'll have all the books up at camp this summer if you want to use them.
Lichens are absolutely fascinating and unlike most outdoor subjects are available to study throughout the winter! They don't freeze, that's one of their properties.
The long stringy tree lichens are known as beard lichens and there are many varieties. One of the rarest is Methusaleh's Beard which can hang up to three feet long from the branches of spruce and balsam.
The beard lichens are perhaps the world's most sensitive organisms to air quality and sadly in many parts of the world they have disappeared. Fortunately the air is still pure here in Northwestern Ontario.
Thanks to my new books I'm able to work lichen facts into just about every conversation.
For instance I might notice someone wearing a Harris Tweed jacket at a party. "Hey, did you know that Harris Tweed used lichens to make the dye for their wool until 1972?" Actually, they never know this.
Or when noticing someone has a cut on their hand, "Many beard lichens have a natural antibiotic called usnic acid that is being studied as a treatment for infections."
It may be possible for people to eat some lichens such as the ground rock tripe varieties but according to the book, it's not easy, requiring boiling in many changes of water with wood ash. I don't recommend it. Some could even be poisonous.
Ungulates like moose, deer and caribou are able to digest it because they have four-chambered stomachs and therefore have a much more thorough digestive system.
According to the book Inuit people have learned to open the stomachs of caribou they have killed and remove digested lichens which they then are able to make fit for human consumption. That's pretty ingenious but how would you like to have been the first person to try it?
Two of the most obvious lichens at camp are the grey and green Reindeer Lichens which cover many large areas of bedrock. Many people incorrectly refer to them as moss. There's a lot of that up here too but its a dark green and usually grows on soil.