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‘Like Little Underdogs’: Lichens Return to New York City, and a New Book Reveals Their Splendor

Two lichens found in Brooklyn: Xanthomendoza fallax in Prospect Park and British Solider Lichen (Cladonia cristatella) at Floyd Bennett Field. (Photos: Jordan Hoffman)

By Lida Tunesi

A book by three Graduate Center scholars, available this fall, might give New Yorkers a brand-new way to look at life in their city.

Urban Lichens: A Field Guide for Northeastern North America will be available in October from Yale University Press. The book, all about the colorful organisms you might see on tree bark or the side of a building, was initiated and spearheaded by alumna Jessica Allen (Ph.D. ’17, Biology) now a professor at Eastern Washington University. Allen collaborated on the project with fellow graduate and now Graduate Center Professor James Lendemer ( Ph.D., ’12, Biology), and Biology Ph.D. student Jordan Hoffman

“There’s this whole world that’s around us that many people have no idea exists,” said Lendemer, who is also affiliated with the New York Botanical Garden. “Lichens are a really interesting way to understand that. They’re a window into the world of small and obscure things, they’re a little like underdogs.”

The book is not just for academics, but for anyone who is curious about the world around them. It includes basic lichen biology and history, descriptions of different species, and detailed illustrations and photographs.

“The whole idea is that someone with a hand lens and no real knowledge of lichens can use the book to identify the common things they see around them in the city,” Lendemer said. One part of the book features a kind of MetroCard grand tour of all the different lichens a New Yorker could see in one day via public transportation.

When people start looking, they might be surprised to see the places that lichens live in an urban environment. Lendemer recalled spotting some under the handrail of a bench below the Brooklyn bridge, and on the awning above a local bar. While the air quality in midtown makes it hard for lichens to survive, he noted, one needs only to walk a few blocks from the Graduate Center to see four or five species growing on a tree.

During Allen’s time in New York City, she led lichen walks for the Central Park Conservancy and was involved in the annual Macaulay Honors College BioBlitz, where students catalogue biodiversity around the city. She was inspired to write the book when, after leading a lichen walk, attendees asked for recommendations for urban lichen field guides. At the time, one did not exist.

“What surprised me even more than the lichens were the citizens of New York City who wanted to learn about them,” Allen said. 

Allen then recruited Lendemer and Hoffman, who studies reindeer lichens with Lendemer at the New York Botanical Garden. As the book’s visual artist, Hoffman traveled all over the city to document lichens with his camera and also contributed detailed line drawings.

“Scientific illustration differs a lot from the kind of art I usually draw, and I think making scientific illustrations for this project has influenced my art today,” Hoffman said. “They are supposed to show specific anatomical structures or biological processes in a way that can be easily understood. I want to draw more illustrations for science literature in the future because I really enjoyed the process and I like the practice.”

Just 50 years ago it would have been almost impossible to find lichens in New York City due to poor air quality. But since then, legislation that limits pollution has helped the organisms find niches in urban life again.

“From a social sciences perspective, lichens are a really good way to understand environment and human impact because they’re so sensitive to pollution,” Lendemer said. “They were extirpated in the ’70s but now, anywhere you go, you can see them. It’s a sign that our environmental policies are headed in the right direction.” 

Now that they’re back, the tiny organisms can provide inspiration to those who take the time to look.

“They are gorgeous, especially when you look at them closely,” Allen said. “They are paradoxically ubiquitous and hidden, obvious yet mysterious, and this is why they have completely captivated my attention and imagination.”

Published by the Office of Communications and Marketing.

Submitted on: JUL 13, 2021

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