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Liking a New Species of Lichen

Life Sciences students discover a new lichen species in Glen Canyon

BYU students looking at lichen in Glen Canyon

Green scales, leaf-like formations on sandstone —any lichen enthusiast can quickly categorize this as a crater lichen. But that is only the beginning of a long identification process for this particular lichen as biology student Jacob Henrie (‘22) collects a sample. Back at his lab, Henrie extracts DNA from his lichen sample and compares it to other previously-sequenced species listed on GenBank.

This lichen and other specimens showed up on Henrie’s desk after a 2019 BioBlitz in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area near Lake Powell. A BioBlitz is when a group of people identify every living specimen they can to understand biodiversity in important or vulnerable areas. This information is crucial for scientific research and a broader appreciation for overlooked diversity. 

As Henrie examined each of the closely-related lichens, he couldn’t suppress his building excitement at each DNA sequence that didn’t match his green lichen. Soon he and his mentor, BYU biology professor Steve Leavitt, concluded that this scaly symbiotic fungus was, in fact, a brand-new species of lichen.

“I was the first to describe this new species,” Henrie says with a smile. “It’s cool because if anyone ever searches this lichen or finds it, my name is permanently underneath it.”

Unfortunately, scientists naming their discoveries after themselves is frowned upon, so Henrie helped to name this new species based on its appearance. The lichen is officially known as Circinaria  squamulose – or colloquially as the “scaled crater lichen.” Henrie explains that “Squamulose growth form is a scaly form that’s distinct from the others in the group, which grow very flat and stick to the rock.” Henrie’s lichen grows on rocks but has green plates that grow slightly outward from the rock’s surface. “That’s why it’s called squamulosa,” he says.

For now, Circinaria squamulosa is only known from several rocks at the base in a tributary of the Colorado River in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Henrie explains that the lichen’s structure and evolution make it an ideal fit for the climate and environment of that area. “I think it shows that there’s really a lot more biodiversity out there than we give credit for,” he says. “It makes you wonder how many other organisms, lichens or otherwise, we have not discovered yet.”

The BioBlitz that yielded this new lichen examined the ecological changes taking place in a canyon where water levels of Lake Powell have been dropping as a result of the long-standing drought in the desert Southwest. Henrie and other researchers found that the lichen diversity in that one canyon was greater than what had previously been identified in all of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area combined. “It was cool to be part of finding and describing one puzzle piece to help understand and answer that question,” Henrie says.

A powerful sense of curiosity drives Henrie in his work, just as it led him to study biology in the first place. He chose to focus on lichens after taking a plant diversity class. A singular lecture on lichens was enough to spark Henrie’s interest. He plans on starting graduate school soon, studying fungal interactions inside of plants.

Overall, Henrie hopes to keep discovering new things about these underrated organisms. “I think there are probably millions of undescribed species of lichen and other fungi in the world, just because people don’t really care to look,” he says. Who knows where the next new species is waiting to be discovered?