Magazine article Natural History

On Hostile Ground

Magazine article Natural History

On Hostile Ground

Article excerpt

Only once have I been seriously embarrassed while searching for lichens. The incident took place in 1999, a more innocent time, before it became pretty much unthinkable to "wander onto" a military installation. I was poking around the perimeter of a military airfield in Cornwall, England, the inside of which, even then, was strictly "off limits." But there was no one around, and the control tower was just a smudge on the horizon. I crawled through a hole in the fence and started my survey.

Why would I take such a risk? Lichens have been intensively studied in Great Britain by an army of amateur naturalists since about 1750. In the beginning they came from the leisured class of doctors, clergymen, and the landed gentry. But soon they were joined by members of all classes: schoolteachers, gardeners, coal miners, peddlers, even a Scottish umbrella maker. In short, thousands of lichenophiles have been crisscrossing the countryside for more than 250 years.

That long history of study has created a dilemma for modern British lichenologists: how can one make one's mark in such a well-tilled field? An ability to think laterally helps. But true devotees recognize that the key to discovery lies in new habitats that are emerging all the time in unlikely places, many virtually unexplored.

The first neglected habitat I discovered was associated with the pylon towers that support high-voltage lines. The pylons are coated with zinc, and so the ground underneath them gets a highly toxic drip during rain. That keeps out most of the higherorder plants, but it opens up a niche to swards of tiny lichens belonging to little known species.

Not only are such "pylon lichens" rare, but their biology is unusual in other respects as well. Instead of being slow growing, like most lichens, they can complete their life cycle in less than a year. …

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