Thursday, February 25, 2016

Does this look really tasty to you?

If you looked at the two photos above and started salivating, phone the Guiness Book of World Records immediately. You must be the only whitetail deer in the world that can use a computer or smart phone!
Nothing makes a better late-winter snack to a whitetail than this stuff -- beard lichens or as most of us know it, Old Man's Beard.
Sometime in the past few billion years, algae and fungi made a deal. It was a "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours," kind of pact. It probably goes right back to the time of the cyanobacteria that made the stromatolites which we talked about two postings ago. We can surmise that because cyanobacteria horned-in on the deal too. It went like this, algae and cyanobacteria photosynthesize but freeze while fungi don't photosynthesize but, at least some of them, don't freeze. In the words of Rick in Casablanca, "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."
Algae and fungi may have been the first to create symbiosis which was so popular it became the basis for life on Earth. Algae created food and fungi protected the algae and they called their partnership Lichens. It was pure chemistry and, speaking of chemistry, the lichens started making their own chemical concoctions, things like acids, that could crumble the rocks they were clinging to and helped keep competing vegetation away as well as predators.
Fast forward to just mere thousands of years ago and First Nation peoples, who must have had a ball trying out various "plants" for things, discovered that Old Man's Beard contained usnic acid. OK, maybe they didn't call it usnic acid back then but what they did know was Old Man's Beard was a great thing to use as a poultice on cuts and wounds. If you did so the wound didn't become infected. Today, we know that the beard contains usnic acid which is anti-bacterial.
Old Man's Beard is an example of an arboreal or tree lichen. There are many more species on the ground. According to my "bible" on the subject: Lichens of the North Woods by Joe Walewski, there are 700 species of lichens in these parts.
One of the most noticeable is the grey Reindeer Lichen (better known in our area as caribou lichen) which covers large areas of rock in the Boreal Forest, including all around Red Lake. Woodland caribou have evolved to eat this stuff and in fact, depend on it and arboreal lichens in the winter.
Caribou, and deer, have four-chambered stomachs which must have something to do with their ability to eat the lichens while humans cannot. Some thoughtful First Nation's person must have considered this and, according to my book, discovered that he could safely consume the three-fourths-digested lichens that were now in the fourth chamber of the caribou's stomach.
Like I say, I think they had a lot fun trying out things back then.
Reindeer lichen is one of the faster-growing lichens and lives for 30-50 years. By contrast Yellow Map Lichens can live for 4,500 years!
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