health & science

Jacinda’s lichen-ness

A brand new lichen gets a special name with a sprinkling of star dust

Nothing exudes kindness quite like a lichen. 

They’re an amalgamation of a fungus and an algae or cyanobacteria. The fungus provides the home, and the algae makes the food. They’re a symbiotic cuddle, or as a scientist describes them, “a community of different organisms all holding hands”.

A new species, discovered in Auckland last year, has been given a special name. 

Ocellularia jacinda-arderniae, or Jacinda’s barnacle lichen, is named after kindness advocate, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

The naming, done with permission, honours Ardern and recognises the lichen was found during the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage.

So far it’s been found on tanekaha, kauri and rewarewa trees in the Auckland. 

The white-coloured lichen in the centre of the image is Ocellularia jacinda-arderniae. Photo: Supplied

Unitec associate professor Peter de Lange was one of those involved in the discovery and naming of the lichen. He hopes the name choice raises the profile of all lichen.

He feels lichen could do with some love. 

“Lichens themselves are neglected. People don’t tend to value them unless they see some economic value but in fact they are incredibly important for the environment.”

He says they’re the nitrogen-fixers of the forest and incredibly, also turn rock into soil by secreting acids which break down minerals. 

De Lange also describes them as canaries in the mine and a barometer for environmental health. 

“They filter our air; some are so sensitive to air quality they soon vanish if the air becomes polluted.”

Sites where lichen has vanished are called “lichen deserts” and are found around smelters and fertiliser plants where air quality is low. Overseas lichen is being used to test whether measures to control pollution are working. 

“They bring in the really sensitive lichens and they plant them. If the lichens die, then they have to do more work.”

New Zealand is abundantly blessed with lichen species with about 10 percent of the world’s lichen found in New Zealand. But there are very few people working with them.

Over a thousand New Zealand species of lichen are listed as “data deficient”. So little information is known about them that scientists don’t even know if they’re under threat. 

De Lange said the spot where the lichen was found highlights how much more could be discovered. 

“We’ve been looking at forest remnants that are monitored by Auckland Council to see what the lichen diversity is - based on the point I made about lichen being an important eco-barometer of health. Lo and behold, we got a new species.”

There are fewer than five lichenologists in New Zealand and lichenology is scarcely taught in tertiary institutions. Unitec students learn the rudiments on lichenology and University of Otago’s Dr Allison Knight also contributes to knowledge. 

The find of Jacinda’s barnacle lichen was made by a former Unitec student, Andrew Marshall, Dan Blanchon, de Lange and his 17-year-old son Theo. Theo collected it as part of a random sampling from a tanekaha tree. When Marshall examined it later, it was realised it was a new species, said de Lange.

“He said ‘Oh my God, I’ve never seen anything like this!’. The spores are gigantic for lichen, you can see them with your naked eye.”

Jacinda's barnacle lichen. Photo: Supplied

Images were sent to an expert in Berlin who confirmed the find as a new species.

So far, Jacinda’s barnacle lichen has only been found in five sites in Auckland and searches for it in likely spots out of the region have come up empty. Until more are found the species would be classed as "at risk" and "uncommon" under New Zealand's threat classification system. With kauri dieback posing a threat to kauri, and possibly tanekaha the lichen could be in danger of losing its host trees, this may change its status.

It’s not the first time Arden’s name has inspired taxonomists.

A ground beetle endemic to Maungatautari Sanctuary is called Mecodema jacinda as well as an ant species from Saudi Arabia, Crematogaster jacindae - named after her to honour her work following the Christchurch terrorist attack. 

Newsroom was unable to find any species named after former Prime Minister John Key.

Read more:

Don't lick sexy pavement lichen - here's why

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