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  • Writer's pictureLatifat Apatira, MD MPH

Lichen! Who knew?!

A few months ago, I participated in a Bioblitz of San Bruno Mountain for City Nature Challenge 2018—an endeavor where nearly 70 cities across the world compete the identify the most types of living species within their area.

The work is done by thousands of regular people like us interested in nature. Participation is simple—go outside and with the GPS of your phone on, take photos of everything that you see alive (any animal, plant, insect, fungi, everything) and upload the photos into the app iNaturalist or your city’s preferred platform. The international community then works collaboratively to correctly name the animals/plants/insects/etc. found. Guess who the winners of the challenge was this year? The San Francisco Bay Area! We won in all there categories with 41,737 observations, 3,211 individual species identified, and 1532 people in participation.

On the Saturday of the Bioblitz search, I met up with about 25 adults and kids at the San Bruno Mountain State and County Park lot, just past the ranger station. The mountain is an oasis of open space located in San Mateo County, California with a few slopes crossing into San Francisco. It was a beautiful morning, wildflower season, and I was more than happy just to be outside. The leader of the Bioblitz gave us a quick tutorial on how to use the iNaturalist app, a bottle of water and a granola bar before breaking us into three groups to explore the mountain. My group actually got back into our cars and drove 5 minutes to the mountain’s 1,314-foot summit. The views from the top was breathtaking—looking east, I could see much of San Francisco, the bay waters, and the East Bay; looking west, the cities of the Peninsula and the beautiful Pacific Ocean.

(Photos by Latifat Apatira)

We started down Ridge Trail. I hung out with a woman (shamefully, I’ve forgotten her name, but we took a selfie!) who looked like she was doing. She was taking photographs of what appeared to be gray and while splotches on rocks. Turns out, her hobby is in lichenology – the appreciation and study of lichen! I had no idea such a field of science existed. She was gracious enough to share with me some of her knowledge as well as a tiny macro lens that I attached to my phone to magnify the stuff we were taking photos of.

Lichen are organisms I think most people don’t put most thought to because they look so unassuming if you’re not in-tune to their existence, but in fact are amazingly complex living creatures. According to our great and all wise friend Wikipedia, lichen are two organisms as one—a symbiotic relationship between algae (a plant) and fungi. There is about 20,000 diverse types of lichen species, they come in varied sizes, color and forms, and happen to be some of the longest-lived organisms on earth. What’s exciting is that, once you realize they exist, you can find them everywhere, from heavily urban cities to the most extreme environments like arctic ice sheets and dry, hot deserts. They can even live inside solid rock!

Here are some more close of us of lichens I captured on the Bioblitz and well as a few other creatures I added to the “San Francisco Bay Area” list. it was fun to be outside, meet new people, and learn about an entire world of life that I had never paid particular attention to. With the macro lens, the photos look more like abstract art that scientific documentations! Fascinating stuff. Next time you’re on a hike, or walking down the street, keep a lookout.

I'll admit, this lichen makes me a feel a little itchy

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