Posts Tagged ‘evolution’

I Like Lichen

May 6, 2015

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Lichens are a strange and wonderful life form. They are composite organisms made up from as many as three biological kingdoms; fungus, algae and bacteria. While they all need each other in this symbiotic triangle of life, the dominant partner is a fungus.

Lichens are fungi that have discovered agriculture- lichenologist Trevor Goward

The fungus benefits from this relationship because algae and cyanobacteria produce food by photosynthesis. The algae or cyanobacteria benefit by being protected from the environment by the filaments of the fungus, which also gather moisture and nutrients from the environment, and usually provide stability. This little arrangement works very well as lichens can be found in almost every habitat and geographic area on the planet. It is estimated that 6% of Earth’s land surface is covered by lichen. They are also considered the world’s oldest living organisms. Cooperation is a powerful survival tool and it accomplishes what evolution alone cannot provide in a single creature.

Lichens grow where other things can’t such as desert sand and bare rock. Their trick is to hibernate or shut down metabolically during extremes of heat, cold or drought. When they get wet conditions they reawake to capture solar energy and let their true colors shine. This is because moisture causes the lichen’s surface skin to become more transparent, exposing the colorful photosensitive partner (the photobiont) to light. This transition can happen within minutes. The next time you see some dried-up lichen, sprinkle it with water and watch it wake up.

It has been a soggy week here in Boulder, the cloudy wet conditions are getting to me and I need some color. This is perfect weather for our tiny lichens to come out of hibernation and make the rocks glow with color. Finding them is easy, just seek a place with rocks. Maybe the name appealed to my wishful thinking but I decided to head up Sunshine Canyon (40° 2’1.35″N, 105°18’56.63″W) to see what’s on the rocks. As you can see, the lichen was full of color on this grey and rainy day…

The Rocks Were Alive

The Rocks Were Alive and Photosynthesizing in Sunshine Canyon. Green Algae in the Forest.

This called for my close-up lens (60mm macro). Now everything is revealed in this miniature world…

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Lichen Abstract Art

The moss was pretty well soaked too…

Moss Droplets

I interrupted this Abert’s Squirrel’s lunch (this photo was taken with a 200mm zoom)…

Aberts Squirrel

Thanks to lichen It turned out to be a Colorful Colorado day despite the soggy weather.

Pasques in the Storm

April 17, 2014

Living on the edge of the Rocky Mountains presents a challenge to things that bloom in early Spring. Temperatures quickly fluctuate from hot to below freezing while a heavy wet Spring snowfall can suddenly blanket the hillsides. What’s a plant to do to protect its sensitive stamens and pistils?

This week we had a warm spell followed by freezing and snow, the perfect conditions for checking out the survival of the most striking of our early flora, the pasque (Anemone patens). Pasque flowers have a showy, beautiful blossom that is composed of 5 to 7 sepals that look like petals. True petals are missing. The plant is common throughout northwestern U.S. up to northern Alaska. Common names include the pasqueflower, wind flower, prairie crocus, Easter flower, and meadow anemone.

I went searching for pasque flowers before the storm on Boulder’s McClintock Trail. I found a few entering the risky world above ground…

The Pasque Before the Storm

The Pasque Before the Storm

The name “pasque” is probably from the Hebrew “paschal”, “relating to Passover”. The pasqueflower begins blooming as soon as the mountain snow melts, about the time of Passover. Another interpretation is that the flower is named for Easter since Pasqua means Easter in Italian.

Religious controversies aside, these early bloomers are important to honey bees and other pollen gatherers to replenish their food stores after a long winter. From an evolutionary standpoint an early flowering niche strategy can provide abundant snow melt moisture and less competition for pollinators

Pasques Get Moisture from the Melting Snow

Pasques Get Moisture from the Melting Snow

One downside of this early bloomer strategy is that early flowering requires survival techniques that enable the plant to withstand harsh climate conditions. In one adaptation the pasque does what we do, it puts on a coat. The plant has evolved a thick silky coat to insulate the leaves, stem and flowers and to protect them from direct contact with snow…

A Coat of Silk Protects the Pasque Plant

A Coat of Silk Protects the Pasqueflower plant

Another risk of early blooming is that the timing of “early” is critical for successful reproduction. We can see that this plant, like many others, depends on the synchronization of snow melt with the early emergence of pollinators. Both of these events are being disrupted by climate change. It is possible that plants like the pasque and the bees that pollinate them will get out of sync. This nasty aspect of rapid climate change is called pollinator dislocation.

Pasque with Pollinating Bee

Pasque with Pollinating Bee

Then the storm came to Boulder, Colorado

The Storm Came and Mandy Was Happy

The Storm Came and Mandy Was Happy

Today the warmth returned to the McClintock Trail so I trudged through the mud to see how well their coat of silk allowed the pasques to survive the snow storm…

Worn Out Pasque Flower Protecting Delicate Pollen

Storm Bedraggled Pasqueflower Protecting Delicate Pollen

This Pasque Survived the Storm Intact

These Pasqueflowers Survived the Storm in Good Shape

Protecting the Future of Pasque Flowers

Protecting the Genetic Future of Pasqueflowers One Flower at a Time

Soon the weather will stay warm and the soil will dry out. Those warm lush slopes of early Spring will look like desert by Summer. Thus by late Spring these tough but beautiful flowers will have completed their life cycle and will toss their seeds into the wind for the next generation. The delicate violet sepals and yellow anther will be replaced by a twisting mass of feathery seed heads ready to fly away and spread the genetic secrets of their survival.

Pasque Gone to Seed

Pasque Gone to Seed

Here’s the handy guide to the Wildflowers of the City of Boulder’s Open Space and Mountain Parks called Look Closely that led me to the pasqueflowers on the McClintock.


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