14 November 2015

Retired UMFK professor leaves no stone or branch unturned in lichen hunt

Bangor Daily News

FORT KENT, Maine — Lining the second floor halls of the University of Maine at Fort Kent’s Cyr Hall is a treasure trove.

There are no jewels, gold or coins. Instead, the half dozen or so tall metal cabinets hold a botanical treasure and Dr. Steve Selva, former UMFK professor of biology and environmental studies and professor emeritus, is keeper of the keys.

Selva officially retired from teaching in 2013, but he’s still a regular on campus where his herbarium of close to 75,000 lichen specimens is regarded as among the largest in the world.

Collecting that many of anything does not happen overnight, and Selva began gathering lichens — an organism in which an alga and a fungus live in a symbiotic relationship — more than 40 years ago when he was an undergraduate at Humboldt State University in California.

“I took this special topics course in lichens with three other students,” Selva said. “The professor said we’d get extra credit if we collected any lichens he did not already have in his herbarium so you had these four gung ho botany majors searching every nook and cranny for lichens.”

While on the hunt Selva came across a variety of Caliciales, one of the so-called “stubble lichens” that turned out to be a new find for his professor.

“It was probably the most common of all the stubble lichens,” Selva recalled. “But he didn’t already have it.”

Selva walked away with that extra credit and with an appreciation of the tiny lichens which got their nickname thanks to a resemblance to beard stubble.

He ended up getting his advanced degrees in ecology, working with grasses and diatoms, but the lichens were never far from his mind.

“I kind of got reintroduced to them when I came to UMFK,” Selva said.

His arrival on campus coincided with publications coming out of the United Kingdom describing specific stubble lichen species that lived only on old growth oak forests.

“Those lichens were used as an ‘indicator species’ for old growth,” Selva said. “I read about that and wondered if I could see the same thing in New England with spruce, fir and northern hardwood trees.”

The hunt was on and Selva began scouring stands of trees in what he describes as the “Acadia Forest” covering Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and the Gaspe region of Quebec.

Along the way he’s amassed the largest collection of stubble lichens in North America as well as the largest collection of old growth forest lichens in the northeastern United States.

Searching out the tiniest among the lichens can be a challenge, but over the years Selva has become something of a lichen whisperer and developed his own technique.

Growing only 1 millimeter in height on the trunk and branches of trees, the stubbles are nearly impossible to see when looked at straight on, Selva said.

“I go into a forest and focus on something that may host a stubble lichen,” he said.

The trick, he said, is knowing what kinds of microhabitats the lichens like, seeking those out and then taking a sort of side-on view to spot the profiles of any of the calicioid.

“I like to think of it as a treasure hunt,” he said. “These are really little things that few people in the world are looking for.”

His research — which has been funded at times by UMFK, the Appalachian Mountain Club, The Nature Conservancy, The New Brunswick Museum, the National Geographic Society and the Northeastern Forest Experiment Station — has shown certain species of the stubble lichens are associated with old growth forests in New England, much like the lichens living only on the old growth oaks in the United Kingdom.

Data on those unique relationships, according to Selva, can help conservation groups working to replicate old growth forest conditions.

“As we look at these types of [old growth] stands we see more and more microenvironments showing up,” he said. “We can see how things like temperature, light or Ph balance come into play.”

A microenvironment or microhabitat, Selva explained, is a tiny, unique area within an ecosystem like small caves created by the root-ball of an overturned tree or even the small crevices within the bark on a tree.

While Selva has gained a solid, international reputation for his work with the stubble lichens, he admits at times the real star power belongs to the lichens themselves.

Back in 2003 the producers of the big screen version of “Hulk” held a very private botanical casting call and Selva supplied 50 pounds of Rhizocarpon geographicum — known as yellow map lichens to friends and fans — for use in the movie’s three dream sequences.

Not one to hog the spotlight, Selva and his lichens have also shared fame with his family.

The seven new species of lichens he has identified over the years are named after his wife Marcie and son, Matthew.

His daughter, Katie, he points out, has her own separate species named after her.

“Katie got the diatom,” he said with a laugh.

These days Selva is shifting his focus from the calicioid lichens to the calicioid fungi and is narrowing that even further to the fungi he suspects are growing in a microhabitat found in the resin of conifer trees.

Standing in Cyr Hall and looking at his row of cabinets, Selva smiled.

“There could be whole new species out there to be discovered,” he said.