"So, naturalists observe, a flea has smaller fleas that on him prey; and these have smaller still to bite ’em; and so proceed ad infinitum."
- Jonathan Swift

September 22, 2016

Plectocarpon lichenum

Lichens can be found all over the world, even in the most barren and inhospitable environments (even near active volcanoes). They grow on exposed surface like moss, but they are very different to those plants. Lichens are the outcome of a highly successful conglomerate resulting from the fusion of a pair of very different lineages of fungi combined with a photosynthetic alga. Together they form a beneficial tripartite that has allowed lichen to colonise environments all over the globe

Photo of parasitised lichen from Fig 2. of this paper
However, lichen are also involved in other forms of symbiosis which are more deleterious - to the lichen anyway. There are parasitic fungi call lichenicolous fungi that have evolved to parasitised lichens. There are about 1500 known species of such fungi and they vary in their specificity and their harmfulness, and some of them form galls on their host. In addition to such parasites, lichen also has to contend with a range of animals that feed on them, including (but not limited to) reindeerscaterpillars, and snails.

Since lichens are constantly being attacked from multiple fronts, some species have evolved various forms of chemical defences that make themselves less appetising to animals that try to eat them. But no counter-measures ever survive intact in evolution's battlefield, and lichen-infecting fungi like Plectocarpon lichenum can mess with their host's attempt at avoiding being eaten.

The scientists in this study looked at how these parasitic fungi affect their lichen host, specifically how tasty they might be to other animals. Plectocarpon lichenum infects a species of lichen call Lobaria pulmonaria. Generally, snails prefer eating those parasitised lichens over unparasitised lichens, but they avoid eating the parasitic galls themselves (see the photo above where the snail has neatly grazed the lichen around the parasitic galls).

So on top of already drawing nutrient away from its host, this parasitic fungus also make the lichen more delicious to the lichen's predators - a double whammy. Now this isn't like other cases featured on this blog where the parasite alters the host to make it more edible because it would help get the parasite transmitted. It doesn't benefit P. lichenum to have the snail munching on its host, but this is simply a side effect (a tasty one for the snail) of the infection. But how is how is P. lichenum causing this?

The scientists measured the level of carbon and nitrogen in both parasitised and unparasitised lichen, and found those with the parasitic galls had lower concentration of carbon. In addition to altering the nutritional content of L. pulmonaria, parasitised lichen also had lower level of defensive chemicals. So is this reduction in defensive chemicals the reason why the snails preferred parasitised lichen? While it seems to make intuitive sense, that turned out not to be the case. When they remove the influence of those defensive compounds in both parasitised and unparasitised lichen by rinsing them with acetone, the snails still preferred the parasitised lichen.

So lichen-infecting fungi makes their lichen host more tasty to snails - but that's not the full story. When they investigated a related host-parasite pairing - in this case Lobaria scrobiculata infected by Plectocarpon scrobiculatae, they found that the presence of L. scrobiculata did not make any difference to their palatability to snails

Despite being in the same genus, these two parasitic fungi affected their lichen host differently. In any case, the effects that P. lichenum have on its lichen host was what the scientists had predicted, but not for the reasons they had thought. This shows that ecological interactions are often messy and complicated, and the dynamics found in one particular relationship or species may not be applicable to another - even if they are closely related.

Asplund, J., Gauslaa, Y., & Merinero, S. (2016). The role of fungal parasites in tri‐trophic interactions involving lichens and lichen‐feeding snails. New Phytologist 211: 1352–1357

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