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Lichens are the Rodney Dangerfield of organisms, and a Tallmadge High senior hopes to get them the respect they deserve. Tomas Curtis, 17, admits most people wouldn't know a lichen if they saw one, but he's "fascinated" by the life form, identifying what are believed to be several new lichens in Summit County this summer -- perhaps new to the state as well.
Tomas made the discoveries while employed as a seasonal biologist by the Summit Metro Parks. His father, Rob, has been employed as a wildlife and plant biologist by the park district for about 13 years, and Tomas says he's had an interest in the outdoors for as long as he can remember.
While Tomas was specifically hired to help with some bat, snake and turtle surveys at a new mountain bike trail at Hampton Hills, the teen didn't squander his down time. Having joined a forestry program several years ago, Tomas was familiar with scoping out lichens in the canopies of trees. Often growing on the surfaces of rocks or trees, lichens consist of two organisms existing in a symbiotic relationship. Some have a crust-like appearance; others resemble a flower or leaf.
"What attracted me to the realm of lichenology," Tomas says, "was their (lichens') intricacy and the fact that they're so often overlooked. Lichens are pretty much everywhere and most people don't pay attention to them. So I began to show people what things could be found in the park and how it could benefit our knowledge of habitat and air quality."
Tomas says lichens are known for being sensitive to air quality and especially to some pollutants, such as sulphur dioxide. "They can reveal a lot about air quality," the teen says, explaining you often find the most sensitive species in the center of the park where it's the most pristine and undisturbed.
Officials from the Summit Metro Parks report Tomas's discoveries include: Peltigera canina, a lichen that has not been recorded in Summit County for 50 years, found along the Bike & Hike Trail in Boston Heights; Canoparmelia crozalsiana, another brand-new record for the county, also found along the Bike & Hike Trail in Boston Heights; Usnea strigosa, a new record for the county, found at Nimisila Reservoir Metro Park in Green; Evernia mesomorpha, another county first, found in O'Neil Woods Metro Park in Bath; and Usnea hirta, believed to be a new record for Ohio, found in Liberty Park in Twinsburg.
"So far I have roughly 25 new county records confirmed and two new state records," Tomas says.
He admits he spends much of his free time, as well as his on-the-job hours, on the lookout for lichens "because it's something I've found an interest in."
"That level of interest and competence in the study of lichens is unusual for someone so young (or for anyone else for that matter)," according to Robert A. Klips, Ph.D., associate professor of evolution, ecology and organismal biology at Ohio State University at Marion. "Tomas is a keen observer who is capable of recognizing the sometimes subtle traits that are used to differentiate lichens, and has studied the subject enough to know how to be on the lookout for inconspicuous and/or unusual ones."
Klips says lichens are home to some specialized insects such as the little white lichen moth. Many moths have patterns that enable them to be hidden from predators because their wings resemble lichen-encrusted bark, he says.
Lichens also are principal components of the nests of some small birds, most notably the ruby-throated hummingbird and parula warbler.
Klips says the abundance of lichens dropped sharply starting about 150 years ago, when industrialization took hold; however, with environmental regulations and new technology, air quality has improved considerably, and, since the mid-1980's he reports lichens have been returning, even to urban areas.
"Studies such as those that Tomas is doing, in conjunction with records kept by the Ohio Moss and Lichen Association and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, will help us understand better the degree to which changes in environmental quality will be felt by ecosystems," Klips says. "That being said, perhaps the best reason to catalogue lichens is because of the enjoyment people get from discovering such interesting and beautiful things right around them. It's a lot like 'Pokemon Go.'"
"It's amazing what you can find right under your nose or in your own neighborhood park," according to Tomas.
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