Lichens are so plentiful in some parts of Alaska you might not even notice them. But on the ground or growing in the trees is an entire universe that scientists are still trying to understand.
Recently, 27 new species were discovered in Glacier Bay National Park. And though they now bear the names of some influential people in the region, it’s the lichens that are the center of the story.
Recently, the University of Alberta completed a study on Glacier Bay, where they counted more than 900 species of lichen. They’re calling it a “global hotspot.”
Greg Streveler is one of those lichens. It looks a little like chocolate chips on top of a toasted marshmallow. Whitish and grey, it grows on alder bark, and it’s named after a real person who lives in Gustavus.
Through the years, Streveler made numerous contributions to Glacier Bay National Park, where he worked as a biologist. He’s an extremely humble person. In short, he describes his work as, “basically [greasing] the skids for research in the park.”
Some of that research meant tagging thousands of specimens through the years, essentially helping set up Glacier Bay’s scientific plant collection. Streveler is retired, but a new generation of scientists are still interested in that work.
So, it seems fitting they would think of Streveler when it came time to name one of the newly discovered species. Streveler reacted in his usual modest way.
“I laughed,” he said with a chuckle. “I was just thinking, ‘well, Toby found so darn many lichens he had to figure out some name for one of them.’”
Toby is Toby Spribille, a lichenologist at the University of Alberta. He met Streveler briefly and was impressed by his scientific efforts.
Spribille’s team embarked on a three week field study in Glacier Bay National Park. By night they slept in tents protected by a bear fence. And by day, they meticulously surveyed the landscape — observing lichens through a hand lens.
“I like to compare it to the field inventory equivalent of the Slow Food Movement,” Spribille said.
Like the Slow Food Movement, Spribille savors each inch across the environment like a six course meal.
“I’ve always been fascinated by small things that are not greatly valued by the rest of society,” Spribille said.
For such a small plant, lichens have a lot going on. They’re a symbiosis between fungus and alga that provide sugars for the fungus to live on. Spribille says they’re basically in a long term, stable relationship, and he thinks that’s an uplifting thing to consider — especially right now, when so much of the news is dominated by pathogens, like COVID-19.
“A lot of science is obsessed with things that can kill us,” Spribille said. “The whole world right now is obsessed with something that can kill us, but much of what we see in the word, the diversity of life and the different forms that are around us … they’re all built on principles of collaboration and mutual benefit between different organisms.”
Glacier Bay National Park is chock full of these feel-good little organisms. Spribille says there seems to be a bottomless variety of lichens thriving: It’s the second largest abundance of lichens recorded in an area of comparable size.
So why is that important? Spribille is not a fan of justifying somethings value based on human need alone. But he says some species of lichens have been used in clinical trials to treat cancer.
There are many reasons to handle these biodiverse areas with care.
“We tend to value things that have names and that we can associate with. And so, bears and bald eagles get a lot of value because we can relate to them,” Spribille said. “But bears and bald eagles aren’t the only things that inhabit the forests of Southeast Alaska.”
But of course, one little lichen has a name — inspired by Greg Streveler.
Streveler shares some of Spribille’s views. He sees the value of small, ecological things existing for their own sake, and he’s glad future generations of scientists can appreciate life in Glacier Bay National Park, even at a micro scale.
“Any place that nature is allowed to kind of take care of itself is just like a spot of gold,” Streveler said.
And now, a lichen named Lecidea Streveleri occupies a spot on an alder tree. But it’s been there all along.