Explosion of Color – Estes Park Trail-Gazette – Estes Park Trail-Gazette

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Fireworks are as synonymous with New Year’s Eve as champagne. Ringing in the New Year watching bursts of color light up the sky with your loved one by your side brings joy and laughter to many.
Consider another way to catch some bursts of color by searching out lichen-covered rocks on a trail on New Year’s Day.
Have you ever wondered, however, what exactly a lichen is?
Lichens are the colorful flakes that cover things like tree trunks, rocks, tombstones, old farm equipment, soil and many other surfaces. They range in color from black or white to bright reds and yellows, and almost every color in between.
Like the symbiotic relationship of fireworks and champagne with New Year’s Eve, lichensare created by a symbiotic relationship of fungus and algae. According to the National Park Service, the fungus provides a structure for the algae to live in, while the algae provide food for the fungus.
Plants are designated as having roots, stems or leaves. Lichens do not have any of these, making them a unique category of living organism that is neither plant nor animal.
There are more than 3,600 species of lichens in North America — from the deserts of the southwest to the highest elevations of the mountains in Alaska — with new ones discovered every year.
Although no formal list of lichens has been recorded for Rocky Mountain National Park, the area boasts at least 200 different species of lichen in the alpine tundra alone. Some of the fun names of local lichens include tile, brown-eyed, powdery kidney and crinkled snow. These names give an indication of just how intricate and unique each lichen can be.
As a keystone species in many environments, lichen play an important role in a healthy ecosystem, indicating the health of an area, particularly the air.
Lichen also serves as a food source for large and small animals. Pikas pull small flakes of lichen from rocks and soil to add to their winter cache piles. Larger animals like elk and caribou eat large amounts of lichen during the winter when other food sources are limited. Lichen can actually make up as much as 90 percent of the winter diet for caribou and about half of their diet in summer.
Lichen also serves as a building material for some animals. Hummingbirds use lichen flakes to build their nests. Rodents and birds use lichen to line the floor of their nest for insulation and comfort.
Another important purpose of lichen is their ability to re-establish an area decimated by fire or flood. Lichens are one of the first plants to grow on newly exposed rock surfaces. Lichens attach to the rocks and, over time, grow into the smallest cracks and crevices. Over time, these cracks grow larger and break into smaller pieces of rock, a cycle that eventually becomes soil and decomposed granite, thus allowing other plants to establish into what was once barren rock.
And one other importance of lichen is their ability to help algae survive in harsh climates because the fungus of the lichen protects the more delicate algae. The algae convert carbon dioxide into oxygen and release it into the air we breathe so more algae potentially means more oxygen.
What an amazing little organism.
Dawn Wilson is a professional and award-winning nature photographer and writer who has lived in and written about northern Colorado for more than 20 years. You can see more of her work, join one of her Rocky tours, purchase prints and calendars, or suggest future topics at DawnWilsonPhotography.com.
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