Lichen growth on quartzite rock
Lichen growth on quartzite rock

NPS Photo

Lichens are an important part of the prairie ecosystem and cover roughly 8% of the earth's surface. Unlike moss, which are flowerless plants, lichens are a symbiotic organism consisting of fungi and either algae or cyanobacteria (or sometimes both). The fungi surround and protect the algae from the elements while the algae provide the fungi with food via photosynthesis.

Over the course of centuries, these unassuming but powerful organisms turn rocks into soil - just like they're doing to the Sioux quartzite at Pipestone National Monument right now.This is due to both the lichen's acids and their fungal threads penetrating the rocks. They are resilient enough to grow in extreme conditions just about anywhere (rocks, trees, soil, etc.) and once they find a home, they take their time to move in. It can take 100 years for lichens to spread an inch or less, and some lichens have been found which are over 3,000 years old.

Whether it's as food, medicine, dyes, animal nests, or environmental indicators, lichens serve a host of useful purposes! Learn more about these incredible organisms in the articles below:

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      Last updated: February 23, 2019

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