Leg 11: Look down…wayyy down. The colourful world of lichens awaits.

By Paul Sokoloff, Canadian Museum of Nature

On the shores of the western Arctic mainland, fall colours blaze red and orange across the tundra. It’s berry season and people across the Arctic, including Canada C3 expeditioners, are pushing aside rosy leaves in search of small plump fruit.

If you look past the crowberries, blueberries, partridgeberries, and luscious akpik (cloudberries), you’ll see crumpled sheets of yellow, pale stubby fingers rising from the ground, and white pointy worms scattered between stems and leaves.

These are all lichens, organisms that are made up of both a fungus and an algae or cyanobacteria (what used to be called the blue-green algae). The subtle beauty found in their many forms belie their outsized importance to the terrestrial ecosystem above the treeline.

An inventory of lichens and plants along the Canada C3 route is one of over 20 science projects supported by the expedition. On leg 11, just as scientists and participants have done throughout the journey, we went collecting for specimens to create this botanical record of our trip. Alongside expeditioners from across Canada, the science team dug up stunted tundra plants for pressing, collected palm-sized mats of moss, and placed delicate lichens into paper lunch bags for drying.

Our lichenological finds included many common Arctic species, such as the Whiteworm Lichen (Thamnolia subuliformis), Crinkled Snow Lichen (Flavocetraria nivalis), Limestone Sunshine Lichen (Vulpicida juniperinus), and the Elegant Sunburst Lichen (Xanthoria elegans).

The uncommonly-collected Frostbitten Finger Lichen (Dactylina ramulosa) was found at several landing sites, but the most exciting find was the Arctic Orangebush Lichen (Teloschistes arcticus). This rare species is known in Canada from the Arctic portion of the Northwest Territories, so we were thrilled to come across this orange wonder not 200 m from our Zodiac landing at Wise Bay, on Cape Parry.

While the specimens we collected on the C3 journey will be deposited into the National Herbarium of Canada (in the collections of the Canadian Museum of Nature in Gatineau, Quebec), some of my favorite lichens on the trip went straight into my mouth. Michele Genest, the wonderfully creative and supremely talented chef for our leg, topped a perfectly cooked seal entrée with fried lichens. Delicious!