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Our scientists’ research takes them to the four corners of the Earth to some dramatic locations to explore the diversity of the natural world. One of our lichen experts, Dr William Purvis, is embarking on a new project to evaluate lichen biodiversity in the Antarctic.

It is one of a number of projects the Museum’s Botany Department is running to investigate the impact climate change is having on lichen biodiversity.

Lichens are known to be excellent environmental indicators – the canaries of the plant /fungal world. William believes that by understanding the vulnerability of different lichen species, we can use them as a warning system for climate change across the planet.

He will be journeying to sub-Antarctic Signy Island, one of the South Orkney Islands situated in the Southern Ocean, to carry out his research. I wanted to find out a bit more about what he was facing so had a quick look at the Signy Research Station page on the British Antarctic Survey website. The general impression I got was… ice and wind! However, William will have plenty to look at as there are many different species of lichens on the island and, along with mosses and liverworts, they are the dominant flora of the island.

William will take fresh samples of saxicolous crustose lichens growing on different mineralised rocks and develop base-line monitoring. His project will generate new specimens not represented in collections, and provide a basis for interdisciplinary studies. The British Antarctic Survey is funding this project as part of their Antarctic Funding Initiative - Collaborative Gearing Scheme (CGS).

I must admit, I never realised just how diverse and stunning lichens could be until I prepared the images for the redeveloped Botany Department webpages. Here are a few of my favourites:

(from top left to bottom right: Pyxine coccifera, a lichen of well-lit tropical forests; Cladonia floerkeana, which prefers acidic habitats; Usnea articulata on twigs in Madeira; Xanthoria aureola, a nitrogen-loving, yellow lichen)

Pyxine-coccifera-200pxhigh.jpg Cladonia-floerkeana-200pxhigh.jpg


You don’t have to go as far as the Antarctic or visit exotic locations to observe lichens though - they occur in all major ecosystems apart from the deep sea. In fact, if you live in (or are visiting) England you can contribute to the new OPAL air survey and help scientists answer important questions about local air quality. Even if you aren't able to take part, the site has a handy guide to some of the different lichens you can find here.