Why is Lichen Important to the Environment

Why is Lichen Important to the Environment?

Last Updated on August 29, 2023 by Krystine

Lichens are a symbiotic pairing of algae and fungi found worldwide.

But why are these humble composite organisms so important for environmental health?

This article explores the many contributions lichens make to ecosystems.

Why is Lichen Important to the Environment?

Lichens on a tree branch
Lichen results from a strange symbiotic relationship between fungus, algae, and sometimes cyanobacteria. Image Credit: Forest Preserve District Will County

Lichens are critically important to the environment because they provide food and habitat for diverse wildlife, monitor pollution levels, enhance air quality through carbon sequestration, fix nitrogen to enrich soils, decompose rocks to release minerals and participate in elemental nutrient cycling.

Key Points

  • Lichens provide essential nutrition and nesting materials for mammals, birds, and invertebrates.
  • They act as bioindicators of pollution and filter pollutants from the air through metabolic processes.
  • Lichens drive nutrient cycling by fixing nitrogen, weathering rocks, and releasing nutrients through decomposition.

How Do Lichens Support Wildlife and Soil Ecosystems?

Lichens on tree bark
Pollution can also cause the death of the lichen algae, discoloration, and reduced growth of the lichen fungus, or kill a lichen completely. Image Credit: NPS

Lichens supports wildlife and soil ecosystem by providing food and habitat to creatures across ecosystems:

Food Source

Reindeer, caribou, moose, and certain slugs and snails graze on lichen as a staple food source, particularly in winter when other forage is scarce.

Nesting Materials

Birds, including hummingbirds, use lichen’s fibrous structures to build sturdy, rain-resistant nests to protect their young.

Nutrient Cycling

Lichens fix nitrogen from the atmosphere and add organic matter to enrich soils when they decompose. This encourages plant and fungal growth.

Protective Shelter

Lichens offer safe havens for small insects and invertebrates like mites within their branching structures.

Through these functions, lichens support rich biodiversity and soil vitality.

How Do Lichens Contribute to Air Quality and Pollution Monitoring?

Lichens also serve vital atmospheric roles:

Air Quality Enhancement

Certain lichen species absorb air pollutants like excess nitrogen dioxide and incorporate them into their tissues as nutrition. This improves air purity.

Pollution Detection

Since different lichen species have varying pollution tolerances, surveying lichen populations serves as a bioindicator to map air quality and contaminants.

Carbon Sequestration

Lichens remove atmospheric carbon dioxide through photosynthesis and sequester it in their fungal tissues for potentially centuries.

Oxygen Production

Lichens release oxygen back into the air through photosynthesis by their algae component, enhancing air breathability.

Through these mechanisms, lichens act as sentinels and filters for air health.

How Do Lichens Participate in Nutrient Cycling?

Lichens drive the nutrient movement through ecosystems:

Weathering Rocks

Lichen acids slowly break down rocks like granite, gradually releasing vital minerals like phosphorus into the soil.

Nitrogen Fixation

Cyanobacteria within lichens transform atmospheric nitrogen into bioavailable ammonia used by plants. This fortifies soils.

Nutrient Release

Decomposing lichens leach nitrogen, phosphorus, and carbon compounds that are recycled into new soil and plant matter.

Water Cycling

Lichens retain moisture and rainfall, then slowly release it into the atmosphere through evaporation.

This contributes to regional water cycling.

Through decomposition and metabolic processes, lichens produce nutrients that enrich whole ecosystems from bedrock to cloud forests.

What Is Lichen And Why Is It Important?

Lichens are composite organisms that form beneficial symbiotic relationships between algae and fungi.

Though often overlooked, lichens provide critical ecological services that support ecosystem and atmospheric health:

Lichens supply essential food and nesting material for diverse animal species including caribou, moose, slugs, snails, birds, and insects that utilize lichens to survive.

Lichens act as environmental health bioindicators, with the presence or absence of sensitive lichen species reflecting air pollution levels in a given area.

Lichens enhance air quality by absorbing pollutants through their cell walls and performing photosynthesis that removes carbon dioxide and generates oxygen.

Decomposing lichens release key nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and carbon back into the soil to nourish plants.

This propels nutrient cycling.

Overall, through their symbiotic metabolism and physiology, lichens provide far-reaching benefits from nourishing wildlife to monitoring pollution, improving air, and driving nutrient movement.

What Are the Three Importance Of Lichens?

The three most important environmental contributions of lichens are:

  1. Providing nutrition and habitat/shelter to support diverse animal and insect species including valuable game animals.
  2. Removing air pollutants through absorption and filtering properties while releasing clean oxygen through algal photosynthesis.
  3. Fixing nitrogen and weathering rocks to produce soil nutrients that feed plants and fungi, enriching whole ecosystems.

What Are The Beneficial Effects Of Lichen?

Key beneficial effects of lichens include:

Fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere into bioavailable forms used by plants increases soil fertility.

Sequestering carbon dioxide through metabolic processes and releasing oxygen into the air through algal photosynthesis.

Providing food for caribou, reindeer, bears, mollusks, birds, and other lichen-dependent species.

Slowly decomposing rocks by secreting acidic compounds to release vital minerals like phosphorus into the soil.

Removing air pollutants like excess nitrogen and sulfur dioxide through absorption into their cell walls as nutrition.

Serving as bioindicators of environmental health due to varying pollution sensitivities of different lichen species.

Contributing organic matter to soils through decomposition, which provides nutrients and enables humus formation.

Lichens confer multifaceted benefits spanning from air purification to soil enrichment to wildlife support through their unique composite symbiotic physiology.

Key Takeaways on Lichens and the Environment

  • Lichens provide essential food and habitat for birds, mammals, and invertebrates.
  • They monitor pollution, enhance air quality, and sequester carbon through their growth processes.
  • Lichens produce soil nutrients, decompose rocks, and participate in elemental cycles.

Often overlooked, lichens quietly maintain ecosystem balance by supporting biodiversity, enriching soils, filtering air, and driving nutrient movement in habitats worldwide. Understanding their profound environmental contributions reveals the deep value of preserving these sensitive symbionts.


What is lichen and why is it important?

Lichens are a symbiotic partnership between algae and fungi that are ecologically vital for supporting wildlife, soil enrichment, air purification, pollution monitoring, and driving nutrient cycles through biological processes.

How do lichens benefit soil environments?

Lichens fix nitrogen, add organic matter, help decompose rocks to release minerals and provide nutrients through decomposition that enrich soils to stimulate plant and fungal growth.

How do lichens contribute to air quality?

Certain lichens absorb air pollutants as nutrition. Lichens also photosynthesize carbon dioxide and release oxygen, improving air breathability and composition.

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  1. Pingback: Why is Stacking Rocks Bad for the Environment? (Full Explanation) - Green Chi Cafe

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