Why Study Lichens?
Lichens are the classic example of symbiosis. They are the close association of at least two very different species (Figure 1), a fungus and photosynthetic alga or cyanobacteria. As a model for symbiosis they are used to answer scientific questions, such as how the evolution of diversity is shaped by species interactions, or how species inter-dependencies might affect the response of nature to environmental change.
Lichens are diverse; there are c. 20,000-30,000 species globally, and > 1500 species in Scotland. They are ecologically important; they break down rocks forming stable soils, and they fix nitrogen from the atmosphere making it available for plant growth. RBGE's work reflects the diversity and ecosystem importance of Lichens in Scotland.
Lichens are important indicators of environmental health, and our Urban Air Quality Survey is an educative tool for local environmental monitoring.
The RBGE lichen team carry out research in species discovery, led by Rebecca Yahr, and in environmental change and habitat conservation led by Chris Ellis. Drawing on over 40 years' experience researching lichens, Brian Coppins continues to support RBGE's work, as well as maintaining the UK's under-pinning resources such as the UK Lichen Taxon Dictionary. The research team are supported in the herbarium by Louise Olley.
The team includes Kristine Bogomazova (PhD student) studying lichen taxonomy, Sally Eaton (PhD student) studying lichen meta-population dynamics, and Frances Stoakley (TCV apprentice) promoting environmentally-friendly living using lichens as air pollution indicators.
We provide accurate Taxonomic and Identification Tools, especially for conservation priority lichens (Biodiversity Action Plan or Priority species). This complements work on arctic/alpine species with a regional focus on montane lichens in the Cairngorms National Park.
To investigate long-term environmental change we maintain Monitoring Programmes. These examine the impact of climate change on lichen-rich montane heath (for resurvey in 2018) and the effect of dynamic coastal processes on shingle ecosystems (for resurvey in 2023).
Environmental change and habitat conservation studies have their major focus on Scotland's internationally-important epiphytes (lichens growing on trees) - such as in Scotland's 'Celtic Rainforest' - with a programme of work that encompasses Past, Present and Future Species Distributions.
Education and Training
Chris Ellis teaches weekend courses at RBGE in Lichen Identification for Beginners and Epiphyte Identification and Recording based around our freely available Epiphyte Community Classification. Rebecca Yahr teaches a residential Field Studies Council course in Lichen Identification at Kindrogan, for beginners through to intermediate students.
RBGE's lichenologists contribute lichen modules to RBGE's MSc course on the Taxonomy and Biodiversity of Plants and this provides opportunity for student research projects.
Lichenologists maintain our Guide to Lichens at RBGE and contribute regularly to RBGE's public programmes. They lead forays annually for the Edinburgh Natural History Society and they provide ad hoc specialist workshops for the British Lichen Society and others.