Friday, April 17, 2009

A New Lichen Discovered

Caloplaca obamae growing on Pleistocene soils on Santa Rosa Island. Credit: J. C. Lendemer

It seems like the world has been infected with “Obamamania” – from the high and mighty to the meek and lowly.

Lichen is about as meek and lowly as you can get - visually speaking. It is a plant-like growth that looks like moss; possibly a dry leaf or it could resemble something dying on a rock. However, lichen is good browse for wildlife when other food is not available; and, it is lichen that supplies the “antifreeze” needed to keep the reindeer’s blood from freezing in Lapland and similar countries.

This recently-discovered species was the pot at the end of the rainbow for Kerry Knudsen, lichen curator at the University of California, Riverside Herbarium. He was doing a survey in 2007 on lichen diversity on Santa Rosa Island in California when he found it.

While many scientists name a species they discover after themselves or a loved one, Kerry Knudsen named his lichen after President Obama.

"I named it Caloplaca obamae to show my appreciation for the president's support of science and science education," he said. "I made the final collections of C. obamae during the suspenseful final weeks of President Obama's campaign for the United States presidency."

C. obamae, is the first species of any organism to be named in honor of President Obama. (You really want to check this last hyperlink!)

"This species barely survived the intensive grazing of cattle (100 years), elk and deer on Santa Rosa Island," Knudsen said. "But with cattle now removed, it has begun to recover. With future removal of elk and deer — both of which were introduced to the island — it is expected to fully recover."

Lichens, which grow slowly and live for many years, result from fungi and algae living together.

Of the 17,000 species of lichen worldwide, 1,500 are from California. Of those 1,500, more than 300 lichens are from Santa Rosa Island. There are almost as many native species of plants on the island as there is lichen.

"C. obamae teaches us that possibly other species of lichens and plants unique to Santa Rosa Island may have disappeared, without ever being known to science, since sheep ranching began there in the 1850s," Knudsen said.

Knudsen published his discovery in the March issue of the journal Opuscula Philolichenum.

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