Hiding under the lichens

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I spent the better part of September inside of a cloud, not moving. Recording data for a seedling census isn’t the most glamorous job, especially in the mountains when the cold wet autumn air inevitably finds its way through all the layers you might be wearing.

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Here is Dovrefjell, home to my friend Kristin Odden Nystuen‘s dissertation research. Her study focuses on understanding ecological change as more willow shrubs begin to encroach on the meadows and heaths of the mountains. A key part of the question is about how seedlings will germinate and grow in changing environments, so off I went to write down numbers and learn Norwegian names for plants.

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Her sites are located above the treeline in these mountains, so every day of field work meant a beautiful hike through mires and forests.

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At higher elevation, the landscapes are dominated by dwarf shrubs (Vaccinium, Empetrum, Betula, and so on), but also by lichens. I had never seen a landscape with such a thick carpet of these organisms – in some cases, ten or twenty centimeters deep. Here you can see the lichen Cladonia stellaris choking out the shrub Betula nana. On a wet day, walking on these landscapes feels like walking on a sponge cake – or at least how I imagine walking on a cake would be like. On a dry day, the lichens dehydrate and crunch underfoot. (I winced every time I crushed dozens of years of growth, but these systems are certainly used to regular trampling from large ungulates.)

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With that much lichen on the ground, I didn’t expect that we would find many seedlings able to grow through. Yet somehow, they were there. Here’s a Dryas octopetala (center) and a Pinus sylvestris (top) doing their best to grow. It will take Kristin another year to find out how well they survive, but I’m impressed they even got this far! Where there are available resources, somehow life always finds a way to use them.

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