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White Worms and Pixie Cups in Colorado

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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A few weeks ago local lichen expert Ann Henson and I scouted out lichens on the flanks of Gray’s Peak in central Colorado. Since my last post was on the awesome power of lichens, I thought I’d share a few photos of some of our amazing locals.

Our very first lichen was probably the most spectacular: Thamnolia vermicularis, the whiteworm lichen. I wrote about this lichen about a year ago here. It really does look like a pile of writhing worms wriggling toward the light. Needless to say, I was very excited to see it.

It’s even more beautiful — and magical — in profile.

Here’s a Cladonia cariosa (I think) — recall that another Cladonia species was one of the triad with prion-fighting powers — with brown-tipped podetia (look for them in the center below), a kind of reproductive structure that elevates the spore-making surface above the layer of still air at the forest floor. It’s ril’ pretty too.

Here’s another Cladonia species that makes two-story pixie cups with podetia — sexual reproductive structures bearing colored fertile surfaces — on top of them, in a semi-fractal fashion. The cups are like the cups of cup fungi, where the sexual spores (meiospores) are produced inside the cup. (Thanks to Sally at Foothills Fancies for noticing this mistake!) Underneath are sterile cup-shaped podetia that may make asexual reproductive propagules (usually, this takes the form of a tangle of fungal hyphae enclosing a few algae). But this lichen *also* seems to have secondary fertile podetia perched atop its cups, with reddish-brown sexual structures called apothecia. That’s where the lichen makes its fungal, sexual spores.

And here it is from the side.

Up on the tundra above the forest where the previous lichens were found was a vagrant — sometimes called a tumble lichen, which I found so cutely appropriate for a western lichen. This one goes by the unwieldy name Xanthoparmelia wyomingica (according to Ann, it was named by a person with no knowledge of English, much less how Wyoming is pronounced). It is a relative of the infamous Xanthoparmelia chlorochroa, the lichen I wrote about when I won the AAAS award for the story of the strange elk deaths in Wyoming (see here for links — look under “Newspapers”). Needless to say, I was thrilled to see it.

As with so many lichens, the back is a completely different color than the front — in this case, black (the green is where the front of the lichen curls toward the back).

Finally, here are some non-lichen related bonus shots. You all have permission to be jealous now, because here is a bona fide July Colorado morel growing near treeline on July 20. Morels are delectable and much sought-after creatures of the springtime forest between late April and early May — mid-June at the latest in Colorado sub-alpine forests. July 20 is an amazingly late date indeed.

But before you get too excited, check out the size of our mighty treeline morels. . .

This one did not find a home in my pantry, though. It has been dried is going to the Denver mycological herbarium, where it will with any luck be studied by visiting mushroom expert Michael Kuo for possible inclusion in his scholarly study of North American morels.

The plasmodial slime molds — giant crawling amoebae — are out in force this year, even here in Colorado. You can read more about them at my former blog here. I think this one has a lovely oatmeal color.

And just to make you even more jealous, here are some other shots I took of Colorado in July on this trip . . . here’s our state flower in full bloom, the Colorado blue columbine (with the beautiful latin name Aquilegia, in the buttercup family, the Ranunculaceae):

And here are my favorite alpine wildflowers: Old Man of the Mountain, aka the alpine sunflower, next to the range descending from Gray’s and Torrey’s Peaks.

Hope you are having a fabulous summer (/winter) — it’s almost half over. Happy August!

Jennifer Frazer About the Author: Jennifer Frazer is a AAAS Science Journalism Award-winning science writer. She has degrees in biology, plant pathology/mycology, and science writing, and has spent many happy hours studying life in situ.
Nature Blog Network
Follow on Twitter @JenniferFrazer.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. kdimoff 2:08 am 08/1/2011

    this is a ril’ nice post, jennifer! thanks for the peeks. and what is that slime mold on top of?

    Link to this
  2. 2. Jennifer Frazer in reply to Jennifer Frazer 10:51 am 08/1/2011

    Thanks! I think its a small Peltigera lichen. You can read more about them here.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Record drought in the U.S., cod fishery recovery and Bjork’s ode to E.O. Wilson | EcoTone 9:01 am 08/5/2011

    [...] bees help make raspberries in Kenya, rare photos of the smalltooth sandtiger shark, strange lichens in Colorado, largest fungus yet discovered, describing the dik-dik, close-ups of hummingbird [...]

    Link to this
  4. 4. One Lichen Species Is Actually 126, And Probably More – Phenomena: Not Exactly Rocket Science 3:03 pm 06/30/2014

    [...] makes food by harvesting the sun’s energy. This partnership is clearly a successful one: the beautiful bushes, fronds and pixie cups of lichens are found on every continent, including Antarctica, and there are some 18,000 known [...]

    Link to this

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