Shouldn’t lichens be classified taxonomically differently than just their fungus components



okay this is actually a long-held debate i wasn’t aware of until my lichen class!! here’s the premise: because lichens are a symbiotic relationship between an algae, a fungus, (sometimes) a bacteria, and (as we know as of VERY recently) a yeast, how the hell do you name them? 

back in the day when people first figured out that lichens were actually more like symbiotic communities, they were like ‘well it looks like this organism is mostly fungus, so we’re just gonna name it after the fungus and be done with it’. this naming trend still persists today and lichens are usually just grouped in with fungi taxonomy as ‘lichenized fungi’, which…..isn’t a system that holds up well with modern science. some of the arguments around this topic include: 

-this is where the ‘lichens are fungi who discovered farming’ thing comes from; it’s the assumption that the fungus is ‘in control’ of the situation, like a host for everything going on, and we now know that that isn’t necessarily true. a lichen is an organism (or community? it depends on who you ask) of between two and four different organisms that seem to have very equal and dynamic interactions with one another.

-a lichenized fungus often can exist in a non-lichenized state as like….well…a normal ass fungus if it doesn’t encounter the right symbionts and conditions when it’s very young. this actually goes for the other symbionts, too; a lichen seems to be a species in the condition of being lichenized, as in the option for both lifestyles is precoded in the DNA of these organisms and can be activated under certain conditions.

-naming it after the fungus doesn’t really capture the whole organism accurately even on a basic ass level. back in the day scientists thought that lichens were in a ‘one fungus = one algae’ model, where like, if you found a lichen with a certain fungal symbiont, then you could know for sure it was x lichen because that fungus could only form a lichen in one way. we now know that isn’t true; a fungal symbiont may be able to form a lichen with several different species of algae, who in turn may be able to form lichens with several different species of fungus, and we aren’t even sure how yeasts fit in all this yet. etc. so the fungus naming thing isn’t really efficient anymore, because you can have a fungus with different kinds of symbionts. 

-one can argue that lichens are both a superorganism and an organism, meaning that they are one individual community with a common goal and an organism in the sense of being an entity that we can look at and classify as a commonly occurring entity. if this is confusing to u, know that it is confusing for me and everyone else and it keeps many botanists up at night trying to figure out how exactly we could put a name to what appears to be a tiny dynamic ecosystem. its like….one of those weird paradoxes that happen in biology sometimes, especially now that we have the technology to challenge what we’ve assumed for so long. 

Lichenologist Trevor Goward puts this pretty well in his essay Nameless Little Things, which discusses The Discourse on this a little: 

When I said lichens have no names, what I meant
of course is that lichens have no scientific names or,
better, that lichens have no names officially sanctioned
by lichenologists. But certainly lichens do have
names. One encounters them – or should – every time
one flips through the pages of a lichen field guide.
Granted that not all lichenologists approve of
common names, yet even the most leather-bound
believer in castles and moats will surely have to
acknowledge that common names are the only names
lichens really have these days. Only in common
names is the human mind actually permitted
unequivocally to touch the lichen thallus. Lungwort
(Figure 1) really is a lichen in the same way that Abies
really is a tree. 

Lichenologists have lately learned many astonishing
things about the lichen thallus, not least
concerning the unexpected constellation of bacteria,
fungi, and other occult organisms that inhabit it, and
that begin to look like component parts of a single
unified operating system: a super-organism say. One
almost senses a major paradigm shift coming our
way, presumably a deepening simultaneous
acceptance of the lichen as organism and lichen as

so in short: yes, they should be, but exactly how to go about doing this is…..VERY complicated and is one of those ‘silly humans want to put things that aren’t meant to fit into boxes into boxes’ biology paradoxes. 

The Naming Of Lichen’s A Difficult Matter

It Isn’t Just One Of Your Holiday Games

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