On a recent trip to Rocky Mountain National Park near Fort Collins Colorado, I was able to make some photographs of the incredible mountains that can be seen along US 34. In this image looking down Forest Canyon, you can see this valley has been cut by glaciers and eroded by the Thompson River that runs along the canyon floor. In the foreground, you can see the wall of the canyon is covered with the glacial till (silt, sand, gravel, and boulders) deposited as a lateral moraine by the glaciers that ground this valley out of these granite mountains.
In the foreground of this image, you can see some impressively large chunks of granite that were carried along by the glaciers as they eroded the walls of Forest Canyon. The soil in this image is covered by grasses which are a fundamental part of this alpine ecosystem at 12,718 feet above sea level. You can read more about the yellow-bellied Marmot and the various ground squirrels found in this part of the park thanks to the National Park Service’s web pages here and here. A complete list of the animal species in the park can be found here.
In this final image, you can see Lichens on the rocks in the foreground. These organisms are found in environments that are too extreme for many other organisms. The high elevation and the weather restrict the kinds of plants and animals that can live here.
Lichens are symbiotic organisms formed by a fungus and and an algae living together as a single organism. The algae grow within the fungus and the fungal cells consume the algal cells. The fungus provides the minerals and water to support the algae’s growth while the algae reproduce fast enough to feed the fungus. This is an example of what biologists call mutualism. Each species gets positive things from the other so they do better together than apart.
Lichens are often overlooked and ignored, but they are incredibly important to the harsh or difficult ecosystems where they occur.
The lichens of this ecosystem erode the rocks and help form the soil used by the grasses and other plants that grow here.
You can read more about lichens here, and in Douglas Ahl’s master’s thesis from 2011 at the University of Colorado.
(NOTE: You can read the pdf file at this location:
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Ahl identified over 19 species of lichen that are prevalent in this region of the Rocky Mountains. There are photographs in the appendices of his work that are worth a look for anyone unfamiliar with these organisms. His research is part of an ongoing study of lichens as indicator species for the health and changes within this high altitude ecosystem.