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Canadian Museum of Nature / Musée canadien de la nature

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(12.12.2001 , Canada, Ottawa )
Lichens of North America: New Book Puts the Spotlight on Lichens

OTTAWA, October 23, 2001

The Canadian Museum of Nature is pleased to announce the publication of a monumental new guidebook to lichens, one of nature's least known, yet abundant, colourful and important groups of organisms. Lichens of North America, which took eight years to complete, is an up-to-date and accessible compendium, written for the layperson and professional alike. It's illustrated with more than 900 stunning, colour photographs and published by Yale University Press in collaboration with Nature.

This work culminates a 40-year scientific career for principal author Dr. Irwin Brodo, researcher emeritus with the Nature and a world authority on lichens and their biology. It illustrates 805 lichen species found in North America, and discusses 700 more, representing the most noteworthy of the 3,600 species known to exist on the continent.

"As a part of nature, lichens seem to have everything going for them," says Brodo. "They are colourful, varied, can be found in winter and summer, occur almost everywhere except in cities and are often easy to recognize. Because they prefer unpolluted landscapes, lichens are the essence of wildness. And, yet, few people know about, or care about them."

The real merit of this book is the marriage of text with photos. Brodo began work on Lichens of North America in 1993, a few years after the idea for a book crystallized with co-authors and nature photographers Stephen Sharnoff and Sylvia Duran Sharnoff. This husband and wife team spent almost four years criss-crossing the continent in their van and photographing lichens in all their natural habitats. Their photos provide a visual counterpoint to the text, a chance to appreciate the beauty of lichens with evocative names such as powder-foot British soldier, crowned pixie cup, organ pipe and moonglow.

Lichens are a unique form of plant life -- a symbiosis that is part alga and part fungus. They form the predominant ground cover for the boreal forest region that stretches from Newfoundland to Alaska.

Lichens are the basic food for caribou and provide the nesting materials for numerous birds and mammals. As well, lichens can be considered "nature's pioneers", since they help to break down rock over time, thereby providing new soil and nitrogen for plants and other organisms. People have also made good use of lichens. They have been used as food, medicines, dyes and for clothing material.

Scientists monitor lichen distribution and growth as early warning signallers of deteriorating air quality and pollution.

Brodo joined the National Museum of Natural Science (Nature's precursor) in 1965 as curator of lichens, shortly after completing his doctorate at Michigan State University. He formally retired from Nature in 2000, but continues to share his knowledge and expertise as a research scientist emeritus.

During his 35 years at the Museum he pursued research on North American lichens, collecting and identifying new species on field expeditions, especially in the lichen-rich Queen Charlotte Islands off the coast of British Columbia. In so doing, he added thousands of specimens to our national collection.

Stephen Sharnoff is and Sylvia Duran Sharnoff was a researchassociate at the Missouri Botanical Garden. Stephen is a carpenter by trade, but joined his wife Sylvia as a nature photographer in the 1970s. Together, they began specializing in photographs of lichens. They have published articles in National Geographic, Smithsonian, Discovery and the New York Times, among other publications. Sylvia died in 1998 after a struggle with cancer, just as Lichens of North America was taking its final form.

"Sylvia was the original inspiration for doing this book, and her contributions are incalculable. We hope that this book will be a lasting tribute to her efforts," adds Brodo.

To find out more about Lichens of North America and to see some of its photographs, visit

The book can be purchased through the online catalogue of the Canadian Museum of Nature at

Media information:
Dan Smythe
Senior Media Relations Officer

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