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SPRING 2007

Vol. 07, No. 2


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What goes around

Lichen passion


Esslinger elected president of 109-year-old botanical society

When Ted Esslinger begins talking about lichens, his resonant, professorial voice notches up a bit in speed and tone. He starts using his hands to gesture more; his eyes open wider, and he looks intently from behind his glasses and full, gray beard, as if judging the level of understanding (or misunderstanding) occurring.

"Excuse me a moment," he says. "I've just gotten a specimen I've been dying to take a look at." As he opens a small, yellow-paper packet and tweezers a portion of something dried and green onto a glass slide, he explains that the specimen is from Canada, that this species of lichen hasn't been found that far north before. He is dubious it is actually Anaptychia bryum, and he is to verify it as such or, if not, correctly identify it.

He hunches over a microscope, adjusts a couple of knobs, and after a brief moment stands. "Here, take a look," he says. "You might need to adjust the eye pieces." Under magnification the specimen resembles crushed oregano.

"Let's find what we're supposed to be looking at," Esslinger says and goes to the back of the lab and opens a cabinet, which is at least eight feet tall and four wide. It, and a matching one next to it, is where he keeps his labeled specimens. He is an expert on the genus Phaeophyscia, and as such he is called upon for identifications and verifications like this, but that is only a small part of what he does as a lichenologist.

Over Christmas break he was in the field in Mexico -- Jalisco State, to be exact. He has been there often in recent years, contributing to two volumes of a work titled Lichen Flora of the Greater Sonoran Desert, edited by his colleague T.H. Nash of Arizona State U.

His latest project, which is only in the beginning stages, will cover all of Mexico and focus on one taxonomic family of lichen, Parmeliacae, in an attempt to identify patterns of evolution and distribution. The research relates directly to one of the really "hot" topics in biology today, the study of biodiversity and the identification of biodiversity hotspots around the world, necessary steps toward conservation of such areas.

On the door to lab 331A, there is taped an editorial written by a well-known lichen physiologist, explaining the importance of lichens in the biological web of the world. It begins by claiming: Lichens are probably the most misunderstood and poorly appreciated organisms in the world.

Esslinger and his colleagues are used to defending their profession and argue that lichens are fascinating because of their unique structure. Composed of two organisms -- a fungus and algae -- they are symbiotic, a photosynthetic association. The algae provide the fungi with food while the fungi offer the algae a living environment.

Lichens can be found in some of the most barren and inhospitable environments. They occur worldwide and can eat stones, endure severe cold and remain dormant for long periods without harm. An experiment by the European Space Agency in 2005 showed that lichens can survive prolonged exposure to space, the most complex form of life known with this ability.

Back from his collection cabinet, Esslinger opens another little paper packet in which a preserved specimen of Anaptychia bryum is nestled between what looks to be Styrofoam packing peanuts. Under magnification it is grayish green, an intricate layering of folds and baffles, something like looking at the inside of a sponge

He explains that the specimen he has just received is fragmentary, not in good collecting shape. Ultimately, he will have to hand cut longitudinal sections of it with a razor blade and look at the internal tissues under a dissecting microscope in order to make a judgment whether it was correctly identified.

Esslinger has been hooked on the study of lichen since his first collecting trip in the late '60s when he found what he was sure was a previously unknown species. For confirmation he sent the specimen to a man he describes as the "most famous lichenologist," William Culberson of Duke University.

Culberson agreed that it looked like a new species and invited him to come to Duke to describe and name the find. Culberson eventually became his major professor for his doctoral studies, and the new species of lichen became the subject of Esslinger's first published paper in 1971: "Cetraria idahoensis, A New Species of Lichen Endemic to Western North America."

But that isn't the whole story. Culberson and others eventually viewed Esslinger's find as a species belonging to an entirely new genus of lichen and subsequently named it Esslingeriana idahoensis.

It was a favor that Esslinger would return in 2000 when he identified a new genus of lichen and named it Culbersonia.

It is this kind of discovery that keeps him passionate about fieldwork. He explains that making a new find is exciting because he knows something about this species of lichen that no one else in the world knows, and won't, until he publishes his findings.

It is a feeling he has had quite often in his career, having discovered more than 120 previously unknown species of lichen. At heart Esslinger is a collector and cataloguer. Growing up in Spokane he was always outdoors looking and gathering, using the popular Little Golden Book nature guides -- books with titles such as Birds, Trees, Mammals, Non-Flowering Plants, and The Pacific Northwest -- to learn about the natural world.

He was the first person in his family to go to college and describes himself then as naive because he had no idea he needed to declare a major. He knew that he liked studying animals and plants and chose biology by default. When an instructor in a senior mycology class spent a week on lichens, he was intrigued, partly because lichen grows year round and can be collected and studied in all seasons. That class prompted him to go out and collect the previously undocumented species that would eventually be known as Esslingeriana.

This summer Esslinger starts a two-year term as president of the American Bryological and Lichenological Society, which was founded in 1898. It is one of the nation's oldest botanical organizations and has more than 600 members. (Bryology is the study of mosses, and mycology is the study of fungi, including lichen, which was first studied for its medicinal properties.)

The society's journal The Bryologist is the oldest continuously edited and published botanical journal in America, according to Esslinger, and he has been a contributor since that first paper he wrote in 1971. He also became an editor for the publication, compiling for the last 15 years the "Recent Literature on Lichens" lists published in each issue.

Last year he turned that project over to Robert Egan of the University of Nebraska at Omaha, his co-editor on A Cumulative Checklist for the Lichen-forming, Lichenicolous and Allied Fungi of the Continental United States and Canada, which currently is being maintained online by North Dakota State University.

After graduating from Duke, Esslinger spent a year of postdoctoral studies at the Smithsonian. When he came to NDSU to teach biology in the fall of 1975, he didn't expect to stay 30 years; however, it has been a good fit both professionally and personally. He and his wife Rickie, who accompanied him on that first, fateful lichen collecting trip in Idaho, have a daughter and grandchildren in the area, and though they love to travel, Texas being a favorite destination, Fargo is home

And as for that fragmentary specimen of Anaptychia bryum, Esslinger was able to salvage enough of it to confirm that the identification was correct. It is a rare species, he relates, and its confirmation indicates that it is circumpolar, with a distribution across Eurasia and North America. It is not really an arctic species but rather an arctic-alpine or a high latitude/altitude species.

Esslinger officially starts his term as president of the American Bryological and Lichenological Society in August at the society's annual meeting held this year in Xalapa, Mexico. It is a five- or six-day event with field excursions scheduled into the agenda. Given his plans for other collecting trips earlier in the summer, it's a good bet that this fall Esslinger will be holed up in Stevens Hall analyzing and describing his discoveries.

--S. Piehl


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