Montana Outdoors

March 10, 2008

More on lichens – a word of caution

Filed under: Lichens, Montana, Nature, Outdoors, Photography, Photos, Pictures — Tags: , — montucky @ 12:27 pm

In the world of outdoor lore, much of which is undocumented or poorly documented, it has always been said that as a survival technique one could boil lichens and make a nourishing broth that would, in a dire situation, sustain life. That is true, but with one major caveat: some lichens are toxic.

After my post yesterday about lichens, I found it interesting to see this story in the news today from Wyoming where several elk have died recently, apparently from eating lichens. This happened in the Red Rim area southwest of Rawlins in the last week. The story goes on to say that in 2004, several hundred elk died from eating a rare form of poisonous lichen in that area. It did not mention the particular lichen involved, but although it can kill elk, antelope can eat it with no ill effects.

If the author of the story had done a little research, he would have found this USDA Forest Service website Celebrating Wildflowers which sheds more light on the same subject. It says a poisonous lichen, “Parmelia molliuscula (also known as “ground lichen”), was determined to be the cause of death for 300 elk in Wyoming in 2004. Visiting elk from Colorado ate this lichen, which caused tissue decay and eventual death. The native elk were not affected, simply because their immune systems were already equipped to deal with this toxic lichen. This is another example of wildlife and plant life evolving with each other. This lichen has also been known to poison sheep and cattle. “Ground lichen” can also be used as a dye for clothing.”

Another poisonous lichen, the Wolf Lichen Letharia vulpina got its name because it was used in Europe to poison wolves and some native American Indian tribes even used it as a poison on arrowheads. Interestingly, other tribes made a tea from it. This particular lichen is very common in my area and until recently I had thought it to be a moss rather than a lichen. In fact, I can see some from our kitchen window growing on a small dead branch in a pine tree in the yard. I find it colorful and attractive, but fortunately I have never had any inclination to eat it. Here are several photos Wolf Lichen that were taken back in January:

Wolf lichen

Wolf Lichen

Wolf Lichen

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