Lichenizing Fungi: Hungry Trickster Gods

by Matt Stansberry

1. A horticultural propagation technique joining two plant’s tissues into a single plant for increased yield;
2. The acquisition of gain through dishonest or questionable means.

Each year in the early spring, I find myself obsessively searching the woods for signs for life, a relief from winter. A pattern emerges, and an obsession begins.

One year I maniacally chased birds with binoculars and a telephoto lens camera. Another spring, I rolled on the forest floor every day documenting ephemeral wildflowers. Another year, it was amphibians – listening at night, documenting their calls, watching the rainfall and the temperature to find them migrating on dark nights.

Eventually, my mind forms a search image – and I find the objects of my interest everywhere, as if conjured by my attention.

This year, I became obsessed with lichens.

In early spring, before the vascular plants unfurl and the nights are still frozen, lichens rule the Piedmont forests of Central North Carolina.
In the grey February woods on the outskirts of Raleigh-Durham, I found fist-sized clumps of Bushy Beard Lichen on the forest floor, blown off tree branches.

The tufts glowed mint green and looked like something cursed – all spines and reaching tentacles with fleshy green disks like open mouths ringed in filamentous spikes.

Further down the trail, a peg lichen had sprung out of crumbling rocks in the half shade between the woods and a clearing. Half-inch erect phalli topped with tan bulbous tips sprouted from a shaggy base. Sunlight shone through the shafts. They were joyous.

Patches of crustose lichens crawled over every rock surface. Soft green foliose lichen hands seemed to massage the bark of tree trunks.

Unperforated ruffle lichen colonized small sticks, with a structure resembling pale blue cornflakes sprouting wiry eyelash-like appendages called cilia.

Dixie Reindeer lichens sprouted like corals from the forest floor.
Lichens are the dominant form of vegetation across eight percent of the earth’s surface area. They inhabit ecological niches where most other organisms can’t gain purchase.

The key to success for lichens lies in their compound nature.

Lichens are composite organisms, consisting of at least two but often many more species. The primary actors (at least in our current understanding) that make up the thallus, or “body”, of a lichen are the mycobiont and the photobiont. The mycobiont consists of any one of a wide variety of fungi (usually cup fungi); it provides surface area, moisture, and structure for the photobiont, the other component. The photobiont, an alga or a cyanobacterium species, creates nutrition for the mycobiont through photosynthesis. The photobiont provides the fungus with sugars to live.
The nature of the relationship between these “partners” has been debated by scientists and naturalists.

One of my favorite authors, David Haskell writes in The Forest Unseen, “Some biologists claim the fungi are exploiters, ensnaring their algal victims. This interpretation fails to see the lichen partners have ceased to be individuals, surrendering the possibility of drawing a line between oppressor and oppressed… A lichen is a melding of lives. Once individuality dissolves, the scorecard of victims and victims makes little sense.”

And yet, in the authoritative book Lichens of North America, published by Yale University Press – the authors contend that relations between fungus and photobiont “run the gamut between fairly innocuous, mild parasitism to a rampant, photobiont-destroying disease. There are few if any lichens in which the alga or cyanobacteria are not invaded and killed to some extent by the fungus.”

The nature of this interplay between species fascinated me, so I visited leading lichenologists to get a better understanding of the relationships between fungus and photobiont.

I met Dr. Scott LaGreca, Collections Manager of Lichens for the Duke University Herbarium in his office, where he catalogs and preserves lichen species from around the globe. We leafed through his files of flattened specimens (Duke keeps 160,000 specimens alone) sealed in archival paper envelopes.

And then he led me to a staff meeting of the Duke’s lichenology department, which primarily focuses on lichen evolutionary biology headed by Dr. François Lutzoni.

I was intimidated, sitting in a room with a group of super-intelligent and highly specialized scientists.

Each time I asked a question, one of the researchers responded, and François would retort that we needed to be careful about making sweeping generalizations.

Many lichenized fungi are closely related – aside from the handful of exceptions of convergent evolution where lichenization evolved in other groups of unrelated fungi.

Cyanobacteria-based lichens prefer wetter environments and higher PH, but there are exceptions.

Researchers have thought that the fungal component protects the alga from solar radiation, but in some cases the alga protects the fungus.

While some lichens derive nutrition from cyanobacteria and other lichens use algae, some lichens rely on both – deploying a super-powerful combination.

Lichens as a group are hard to pin down.

This was one of the first indications I noticed that suggested we are dealing with a Trickster.

Much as lichens are found worldwide, so too is the mythic culture hero, the Trickster.

The character is most eloquently described in Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World, a book that examines ancient stories of Hermes, Eshu, Loki, Raven and Coyote. The more I learned about lichens, the more the parallels matched up between tricksters and lichen thalli.

The opening story in Hyde’s book retells a story of coyote taking other animals body parts and integrating them into his own body.

The name of Hermes once meant “he of the stone heap”.

Tricksters are boundary crossers, cross-dressers, ambiguous and ambivalent. They stand for double-ness, duplicity, contradiction.
Hyde writes that Trickster has a hyperactive sexuality, is ridden by lust – but it almost never results in any offspring.

Lichen can reproduce asexually, where the thalli and photobiont disperse together. But sexual reproduction occurs in the fungus only. The fungus will produce hundreds of thousands of spores, but only a few of them will be successful.

According to Hyde, the mythology of the trickster is the story of intelligence rising from hunger, predators outwitting prey. The coyote that steals the bait without springing the trap. Loki who invents the net to catch the salmon.

Lichens are grifters, taking energy and resources from algae and bacteria and conjuring life out of rock and air.

Tricksters are dependent on others for their very identity. Hyde writes that Hermes cannot be imagined without the more serious Apollo whose cattle he steals.

“If the brain has cunning, it has it as a consequence of appetite; the blood that lights the mind gets its sugars from the gut,” writes Hyde.
And as the intelligence of the Trickster derives from appetite, its success is also determined by its ability to limit its appetite and that of others.

A lichen would eat itself alive if it couldn’t regulate its consumption of photobionts resources. Likewise, lichens are exposed to elements and herbivores, and therefore produce chemical compounds that make them unpalatable to most species.

“There are large, devouring forces in the world,” writes Hyde. “Trickster’s intelligence arose not just to feed himself, but to outwit those other eaters.”

So what is Professor Lutzoni’s stance on lichen’s role in a symbiotic relationship? Are they partners or is something more sinister happening?
“Think of symbiosis as a continuum. Parasitism is one extreme of symbiosis, and mutualism is another. I can make a very strong case with examples for either distinction,” Lutzoni said. “Different species of lichens vary in their relationships at different points in their life cycles. Sometimes a spore from one lichen thallus lands on another lichen, steals its algae and kills the thallus. If you stick with the blanket term symbiosis, you don’t have to commit.”

While Hyde’s book doesn’t deal with lichen, I like his phrase, the agile parasite. The fungi offer the alga or cyanobacteria a gift, but not a pure gift.

As biologists study lichens further, the interrelationships of compound multi-species entities become even more complex. “There are many other bacteria and fungi living inside the lichen thalli,” Lutzoni explained. “Over 70% of the lichen fragments we cut open have additional fungi growing out of them, fungi more closely related to the endophytic species living inside of plants. The lichen is still really a lichen-forming fungus and a photobiont, but of course there are all these communities of other organisms living inside, contributing.”

Once you get out the microscopes, it’s hard to talk about lichens as a single species. Lutzoni has adopted the term Operational Taxonomic Unit as a proxy for a group made up of microbial species.

Nothing lives in isolation. We ourselves are composed of multiple entities. “Our very cells are similarly structured,” writes David Suzuki in The Sacred Balance. “In the 1970s, Lynn Margulis discovered organelles found in the cells of complex organisms are evolutionary remnants of bacterial parasites.”

Organelles can reproduce within the cell, have distinct DNA.

As Haskell writes, “We are Russian Dolls, our lives made possible by lives within us. We are lichens on a grand scale.”

Staring into a lichen covered limb, I see a mandala representing the forces of destruction and creation, the disintegration of individuality. It inspires a sense of holiness that is enhanced by our understanding the complex interplay of individual species.

In the microscopic, I see a glimmer of an ancient god.

Matt Stansberry is a writer focused on the intersection of natural history and myth. He lives in the Piedmont of North Carolina with his wife and three sons. His first book, Rust Belt Arcana: Tarot and Natural History in the Exurban Wilds, was listed as one of The Nature Conservancy’s favorite books of 2018. Find him on Twitter @LakeErieFlyFish.

Artwork by David Wilson