Through DNA analysis of museum samples, scientists have discovered a new species of fleshy green lichen. Misidentified by original collectors, the lichen is known from only 32 specimens collected from shrubs in North and Central Florida between 1885 and 1985. The hunt is now underway to find it in the wild if it still exists. The Florida Museum reports.
The lichen, named Cora timucua after the Timucua people in Florida, is endangered, even more so than the federal government-protected Florida perforated deer lichen, if it is still not extinct. Researchers hope C. timucua can survive in pristine foci of the state’s dwindling pine forest habitat, although recent searches have yielded no results.
“The million dollar question:” Where is this lichen? ” The optimist in me says that he still exists.”
Laurel Kaminski, digitalization manager at the Florida Museum of Natural History.
C. timucua, which became more widespread in the early 20th century, was only harvested from Ocala National Forest and O’Leno State Park after 1968, two of Florida’s last surviving shrub ecosystems. Citrus groves and urban sprawl have replaced up to 90% of the state’s dwarf pines.
The new species, nicknamed the timuqua lichen, is similar to a field mushroom and is about a dollar with jagged edges. It can be distinguished from woody mushrooms by their texture: felt and papery, curved blades, and a cracked underside.
But its color is a mystery. The lichen is light gray when dry, but the samples turn dark blue-green and release a reddish-brown pigment when wet in vitro. Without photographs and detailed descriptions of lichen in nature, scientists do not yet know how it reacts to moisture in the wild.
“In general, people take nature for granted, and the history of the timuqua lichen can tell us that sometimes we are late. We need everyone’s help right now to try and find this lichen in Florida.”
Manuela Dal Forno, senior study author, and lichenologist at the Texas Institute for Botanical Research
The Timucua lichen likely prefers the habitat of older dwarf pines. There are taller trees and well-established populations of native Florida plants such as rusty lyonia, a shrub with reddish fibers lining its leaves. But travelers should avoid collecting any potential specimens they find: instead, they can take pictures of the lichen and upload the images to the Timucua Heart Lichen Project on the iNaturalist public science platform for identification.
Lichens are partners of fungi and photosynthetic organisms and play a key role in their ecosystems by enriching soils and circulating nutrients. But much of the world’s lichen diversity remains hidden. Florida may have as many as 1,000 lichen species, many of which remain undisclosed, and whose populations may also be threatened.
Lichen Timucua belongs to the genus Cora, a group of nearly 200 tropical lichens that were once considered one species commonly found in mountainous environments. Its Florida discovery is the northernmost recorded species, and the new species is the only of its genus in the United States.
Even if the species became extinct, studying its DNA could help scientists understand how it got to Florida. The closest known relatives of the Timucua lichen are found in Colombia and Brazil, raising questions about how C. timucua was able to thrive in an environment so different from its related species.