Fólk í norðurslóðarmálum

800 known species of lichen within Iceland

Starri Heiðmarsson - Icelandic Institute of Natural History

Starri Heiðmarsson, a doctor in lichenology, works at the Icelandic Institute of Natural History in Borgarbyggð, Akureyri. He has been involved with the institute since the turn of the century, conducting research on vegetation and various projects, including those related to the Arctic Gateway in Akureyri. But how does lichenology relate to Arctic issues?

What are lichen?

Starri explains that lichenology is a subfield of botany, or more specifically, mycology: "Lichens are largely composed of fungal partners in symbiosis with green algae or cyanobacteria. Fungi, being non-photosynthetic organisms, rely on something to live on, and lichens rely on their photosynthetic partners, such as green algae or cyanobacteria, to produce food through photosynthesis. In a way, we could even argue that coniferous trees are lichens. They perform photosynthesis for the fungi, such as the mycorrhizal fungi, that provide them with water and nutrients, and they live on the trees. If you delve into these matters and the relationship between fungi and plants, you will find epiphytic plants that have stopped photosynthesizing themselves and rely on mycorrhizal fungi to connect them to their host. Thus, the fungus becomes an intermediary, sustaining something illicit," Starri explains with a laugh.

Starri studied biology at the University of Iceland and specialized in lichenology at Uppsala University in Sweden. He conducted research on a specific genus of lichens for his doctoral project. The genus is called Cetraria in Latin and is found widely across the world, both in the Arctic and the temperate zone. Starri says his interest in botany was sparked when he got a summer job working with Hörður Kristinsson, a botanist, in Akureyri. He took over from Hörður at the Icelandic Institute of Natural History. "Following that, my interest in the evolutionary history and uncovering how species and lineages are related and what has happened over time intensified. Classification piqued my interest, and it was just a question of which group to choose. In many ways, lichens seemed fascinating, and there was a need for a lichenologist to continue Hörður’s work."

800 species of lichen have been found in Iceland and the number is constantly growing

The Icelandic Institute of Natural History is responsible for monitoring the species present in the country's ecosystems. In the institute's premises in Akureyri, there is a lichen herbarium with over 20,000 specimens, aiming to have representatives for most species. "We have around 800 species of lichens in Iceland, which is twice as many as vascular plants. Few have conducted research on them, and as soon as we start looking and collecting lichens, we almost always discover new species that have not been found before," Starri says.

Twice, meetings for lichenologists in the Nordic countries have been held in Iceland. In 1997, twenty people had a base at Eiðar and traveled extensively throughout East Iceland, collecting lichens and discovering around 50 new species. In 2009, the meeting was held in Snæfellsnes, where Starri says a significant number of new species were found.

Representative of Iceland in the Terrestrial Expert Monitoring Group of the CBMP

Starri states that his involvement in Arctic issues revolves around studying vegetation responses, particularly lichens, to climate change. He also collaborates with the Circumpolar Biodiversity Monitoring Program (CBMP) of the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF), a working group of the Arctic Council. Starri shares co-chairmanship in the Terrestrial Expert Monitoring Group of the CBMP, which is one of CAFF's main projects. The CBMP consists of four working groups: terrestrial, marine, coastal, and freshwater. The role of these CBMP groups is to coordinate research and work across locations independently. The purpose of the project is to establish a monitoring plan that is harmonized among all countries, enabling researchers to utilize data from others and make comparisons. "If we intend to monitor the biosphere and biodiversity comprehensively, there are no borders that work, and working independently within each country is insufficient. We need to view this comprehensively and understand the changes occurring in the Arctic," Starri explains.

Impact of climate change on lichen and mountaintops

In addition to collaboration with CAFF and other committee work, Starri is involved in projects related to monitoring areas for greenhouse gas effects. One of the international projects is called Gloria (Global Observation Research Initiative in Alpine Environments). Gloria focuses on monitoring changes in mountain summits due to warming. According to Starri, mountain summits are suitable for monitoring because they are sensitive to changes and exhibit rapid transformations. In recent years, the institute has been monitoring areas in Öxnadalur, and Starri, along with a Swiss team, has conducted research at the Zackenberg Research Station in northeastern Greenland, which is another GLORIA site similar to Öxnadalur.

Starri is also involved in a project initiated by his colleague Eyþór Einarsson in 1965. The project involves monitoring rock outcrops within the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier, which have grown significantly due to the thinning of the glacier. "There is so much we are investigating in the area, all under human influence. We have monitoring and grazing pressure, and it is challenging to determine whether the changes are due to warming, grazing, or other land-use changes. But in the rock outcrops, there is nothing human except pollution or climate change, just natural ptarmigan grazing," says Starri.

Starri Heiðmarsson

"We have around 800 species of lichens in Iceland, which is twice as many as vascular plants. Few have conducted research on them, and as soon as we start looking and collecting lichens, we almost always discover new species that have not been found before.”