Nature museum scientist pens book on lichens

Dr. Irwin Brodo, a world-renowned expert on lichens, has published a major field guide to the family of organisms after years of research at the Canadian Museum of Nature.

Brodo’s Keys to Lichens of North America, a 424 page illustrated book of identification keys, went on sale in January.

Lichens are a fungus and an algae that live together symbiotically. There are more than 20,000 species of lichens known. Lichens look similar to moss, and come in many shapes and colours. Lichens often appear as a “crust” on trees, rocks, and in the soil. More than 80 species of lichens have been discovered by Brodo himself, and six have actually been named in honour of the Centretown scientist.

Brodo, 80, wrote the book to complement another of his publications, the landmark Lichens of North America from 2001. Brodo says the idea for writing this new book came after he continued to add detailed notes and new discoveries to his previous book. He wanted to create a set of keys so lichenologists and students can distinguish which species of lichen they’re finding.

“Every time I went to teach about lichens, I would expand the keys and add a few more species and change some things. And so over the years it was getting bigger and better all the time,” says Brodo. “I looked at all the keys, re-wrote some completely. And added many, many new species.”

And the end result, after three years of research and revision, was his most recent book.

Brodo says the research on lichens is certainly not done, as “changes keep being made. People have already started pointing out things that could be improved in the keys, and new species that might be included in the next edition.”

Mark Graham, the McLeod Street museum’s vice-president of research, says Brodo’s impact on this field of study cannot be overstated.

“To be able to create a book like that, you have to painstakingly go to literature and museum collections to find where people found all these things. You have to have a very, very comprehensive knowledge to do this,” says Graham. “He’s a very dedicated man.”

Graham says that despite technically retiring 15 years ago, Brodo still works and researches every day at the museum.

Brodo, is widely admired. Owen Clarkin, chair of the conservation board of the Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club (an organization headed by Irwin’s wife, Fenja Brodo) calls Brodo “Mr. Lichen.”

“His influence has been enormous. He’s the world-leading academic in the whole field,” says Clarkin.

What really sets Brodo apart from other leading scientists, adds Clarkin,  is the impact he has on his community.

“It’s pretty common to have experts who are mostly in the lab. A special thing about Irwin is that he’s participated directly in many community outreach activities. He’s given multiple workshops, he’s led events… He’s special in that regard.”

Clarkin says he’s grateful to know an expert who’s so willing to share his knowledge with the general public. Brodo’s lifelong dedication to the study of lichens began with his enjoyment of being outdoors. Brodo first learned about lichens during a botany field course.

His research on the organisms began during his studies in Ithaca, New York at Cornell University: “I decided to work on lichens because they were so abundant and conspicuous in the area around Cornell,” says Brodo.

Brodo himself is from New York City, which is an area without lichens, as they are vulnerable to air pollution. Lichens often thrive near water sources and away from densely populated cities.

Brodo encourages the general public to learn about lichens. “For anyone who likes the out of doors, it’s a nice thing to add to your repertoire of natural history. It’s an aspect of the natural landscape that people really should become attuned to. They’re very pretty, and they’re available all year round.”

In Centretown, enthusiasts can find species of lichens along the walls of the Rideau Canal and along rocks at the waterfront of the Ottawa River, Brodo says this is because Ottawa is such a clean city, whereas in many other urban centres, lichens would absent due to pollution.

For anyone interested in seeing rich lichen flora, a visit to Gatineau Park would offer the opportunity to see more than 200 species of lichens.