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Lichens the target of a High Arctic expedition by Canadian Museum of Nature scientists

Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature


Dr. Troy McMullin collects lichens during a field expedition to Arviat, Nunavut in summer 2016. 



Ottawa, June 30, 2017 – Two scientists from the Canadian Museum of Nature will have their noses close to the ground this July during a three-and-a-half-week journey to Canada’s High Arctic. Their goal: collect as many species as possible of lichens, dominant plant-like life forms that are often small and overlooked, but which are essential to maintaining the Arctic’s cycle of life.  

“Lichens are found in virtually every terrestrial environment on earth, and they can be considered as ‘canaries in the coalmine’ since specific species can tell us about the overall environmental conditions of the soil and air,” explains Dr. Troy McMullin, the museum’s lichen expert who will be leading this expedition to Canada’s northernmost regions. He will be joined by senior research assistant Paul Sokoloff, a botanist with six previous Arctic plant-collecting expeditions Arctic under his belt.

The team leaves July 1 and returns July 25. The journey’s highlight will be a week at the end around Lake Hazen, one of Canada’s northernmost lakes, located on the tip of Ellesmere Island. The area’s 24-hour daylight will provide limitless hours for study and surveys of the surrounding land, which resides in Quttinirpaaq National Park.

Lynn Gillespie © Canadian Museum of Nature.


View of Lake Hazen on Ellesmere Island. The area around it has micro-habitats with a diverse range of Arctic plant life. Museum scientists have explored the area for plants in the past, but not with a focus on lichens.

Prior to Lake Hazen, the duo will start the expedition with about six days collecting lichens and vascular plants around Resolute on Cornwallis Island, then a few days near the Euraka research base on the Fosheim Peninsula of Ellesmere Island. They will then head to nearby Axel Heiberg Island, working from the McGill Arctic Research Station.

“It’s a whirlwind tour of the High Arctic, but with the focus this time on lichens” says Sokoloff. He notes that previous museum expeditions to document Arctic plant diversity have usually focussed on vascular plants, such as sedges, shrubs, grasses and saxifrages, as well as mosses. “With Troy’s expertise, we will be able to fill some important gaps in our knowledge of Arctic flora.”

Twin Otter aircraft provided the Polar Continental Shelf Project will convey the scientists to their main sites, and an aerial survey by helicopter will allow them to scope out habitats of interest on the Fosheim Peninsula. Once on the ground, it will be a matter of boots on the ground, as they fan out to record species and collect specimens for the museum’s national collections.

The Canadian Museum of Nature has a world-class collection of lichens, with about 150,000 specimens, much of it collected and curated by researcher emeritus Dr. Irwin Brodo. While lichens across Canada are well represented, Brodo only collected once in the Arctic on Bathurst Island. McMullin’s expedition with Sokoloff will provide a much more comprehensive record of lichen diversity.    

“There are an estimated 1,000 species of lichens in Canada’s Arctic, but there are approximately 1,700 known from the Arctic globally. I suspect many species in Canada have not yet been discovered, particularly in the poorly studied areas such as the High Arctic,” notes McMullin. “These collections will add to the inventory of what species are known and where they are found, and provide a baseline for future ecological studies in the Arctic.”

The expedition is part of the museum’s ongoing Arctic Flora Project. The goal of this international project is to collect, map and identify the more than 800 species of vascular plants (as well as mosses and lichens) that are thought to populate the Canadian Arctic and northern Alaska. Logistics support for the lichen expedition is provided by the Polar Continental Shelf Project.

About lichens
Lichens are found on every continent and can grow in frigid polar regions, harsh deserts, as well as your backyard! A lichen is part fungus and part green alga or a cyanobacterium (sometimes both). Some lichens create nitrogen for the soil and are the main source of food for caribou. Lichens play important roles in ecosystems: they are among the first colonizers of bare rock, they provide food for animals, habitats for insects, and they can serve as air-pollution monitors. Lichens are also used in dyes and traditional medicine.One of the most common lichens found in the Arctic is the bright-orange elegant sunburst lichen (Xanthoria elegans).


About the Canadian Museum of Nature
Canada's national museum of natural history and natural sciences provides evidence-based insights, inspiring experiences and meaningful engagement with nature's past, present and future. It achieves this through scientific research, a 14 million specimen collection, education programs, signature and travelling exhibitions, and a dynamic web site, nature.ca. The museum’s Centre for Arctic Knowledge and Exploration continues the museum’s legacy of more than 100 years of research, documentation, and collections about the biodiversity of Canada’s North. 

Information for media, including images:
Dan Smythe
Media Relations
Canadian Museum of Nature