Fairy puke and witch’s hair found in Sylvia Grinnell Park
Museum of Nature survey finds much to lichen
Fairy puke is green with pink spots. And you can find it in Sylvia Grinnell Park, just outside Iqaluit.
We’re talking, in case there’s any confusion, about a particular species of lichen that goes by the scientific name of Icmadophila ericetorum.
The fairy puke was one of about a dozen species of lichen that had not previously been identified in Iqaluit, until it was recently spotted by Troy McMullin, a lichen expert with the Canadian Museum of Nature, who visited the park for several weeks in July.
“It’s more a boreal species, so it’s surprising to find it in the Arctic islands at all,” he said. “That was a neat one.”
Accompanying McMullin was Jeff Saarela, a vascular plant expert with the museum. The aim of the trip, said Saarela, was to establish a solid baseline understanding of which plants grow in the area, so that changes prompted by climate change in this part of the Arctic are better understood.
“The Arctic is important because the climate is changing rapidly, and there is lots of evidence in the scientific literature that vegetation is changing,” he said. “What we’re doing is really basic research to try and build on our understanding of the distribution and patterns of plant diversity in the Arctic.”
The two spent most their time in a relatively unexplored corner of the park, at Peterhead Inlet, that could only be accessed by boat.
Lichen, for the uninitiated, is “a fungus that’s discovered agriculture,” said McMullin. That fungus “forms a greenhouse, essentially, in which algae and cyanobacteria, in rare cases, are grown,” he said.
These crops help turn sunlight into carbohydrates, which the fungus then eats. “They get nothing from the soil, which makes lichens really unique,” said McMullin. “They get most of their nutrients from the atmosphere—they just soak it up like a sponge—or from water that washes over them.”
The lichen that McMullin encountered came in a wide variety of shapes.
Alectoria ochroleuca is known as witch’s hair, because it grows in long, tangled, shrub-like formations.
Cladonia deformis, or the lesser sulphur-cup, grows in long, gnarled fingers, with tips that occasionally flare bright red.
And Ophioparma ventosa is known as bloodspot lichen because of its white and crimson colouring.
Another unusual thing about lichen is that it can grow to be very old—”thousands of years old in some cases,” said McMullin.
One species of bright orange lichen thrives on nitrogen. It gets it from falling bird droppings, which is why you’ll find it “concentrated where birds are hanging out,” said McMullin.
That orange lichen looks leafy and can be easily peeled off the rock. Others grow right into the rock, by pushing their stringy mycelium in between the spaces of mineral formations. “It becomes one with the rock, so you can’t collect it unless you collect some of the rock with it, which makes it really difficult to study,” said McMullin.
First, you have to use a rock hammer to collect rock chips with lichen samples. Then you have to haul this heavy collection back south to a laboratory equipped to do advanced chemical analyses to help identify the species. “And there isn’t a lot of literature to help with them. So, as a result, we know far less about the lichens of the Arctic than the plants.”
Saarela, for his part, focused on vascular plants. Those are the ones, like flowers, with specialized systems to move water and nutrients from the soil.
Among the curiosities he spotted was thread-leaved pondweed, which flourishes in tundra ponds near the end of the road entering the park.
“That’s the northern-most limit of that species known in Canada. It’s the only place I believe known on Baffin Island, and it’s not known on any other Arctic islands,” said Saarela.
“The plant was first discovered in these ponds back in the 1940s, and re-identified 25 years ago. I wanted to see if that thing persisted,” he said. “It’s super abundant. That species has survived and hung on and done really well over the past six decades.”
Saarela also found four or five previously unreported species of plants, known from further up Frobisher Bay, but never found in the Iqaluit area. That includes two species of cinquefoil.
One thing Saarela didn’t spot in the park are weeds. Invasive species are expected to encroach upon places like Iqaluit as the Arctic warms and traffic increases.
“But it’s just not happening,” said Saarela. “There are a few species that were probably introduced by grass seed, like dandelions, but there is no evidence of weeds coming into the Arctic, at least in Canada.”
As a result of the trip, “I think it’s fair to say we have a really good knowledge of the biodiversity of the area,” said Saarela.
“That’s important, because people in the future, in 10, 15, 100 years, can look back at the record and use that as a basis to compare to what they’re seeing.”