Newspaper article The Tuscaloosa News

ECOVIEWS: Lichens a Fun, Easy Choice for Teaching Ecology

Newspaper article The Tuscaloosa News

ECOVIEWS: Lichens a Fun, Easy Choice for Teaching Ecology

Article excerpt

With schools starting across the country, I asked my grandson Parker what kinds of ecology projects a teacher might challenge students with at the beginning of the year. Parker is going into the sixth grade, but we were looking for projects that would be appropriate for schoolchildren of any age. After a few missteps that would require using binoculars, setting traps or keeping live plants or animals in the classroom, we decided on the perfect project: Teach students about lichens.

Lichens comprise two species masquerading as one. The two species live together in the paragon of a mutualistic partnership, with each providing for the other and neither being able to make it on their own. Although they look like a single organism, they actually represent remarkable and complex associations between fungi and algae. Neither the fungal nor algal species has the ability to survive alone, and each contributes to their joint survival in special and essential ways. Algae have chlorophyll and can therefore convert sunlight into usable energy through photosynthesis. A fungus has no chlorophyll; instead it is able to absorb vital nutrients from the surface it grows on. So, algae provide energy to the association, fungi supply minerals, and the combination functions like an independent, free-living organism. In addition to providing a form of nourishment, the physical structure of the fungus protects the algae from exposure.

Lichens offer opportunities for a classroom science project that is all-inclusive, regardless of where the classroom is. Lichens live on walls and fences in cities, on fenceposts and barns in the country and on tree limbs, dead or alive, everywhere. Anybody anywhere can find lichens. And what a great organism for the classroom. Lichens are inoffensive to virtually everyone. I have never heard of someone with licheno- phobia, and if I did, I would be suspicious. Lichens are not poisonous, don't smell bad and do not have thorns or briars. Every child can be expected to bring a sample to school. With only a little explanation and guidance, any student from kindergarten to college can find a lichen. …

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