That changed recently, when a pair of lichen researchers studying a database of recently digitized lichens realized some grew far outside their described range.
When they investigated, they found that it wasn’t out of range — it was a different species that had been miscategorized. They named it Cora timucua in honor of the Timucua people, a group of Native Floridians who were driven out of existence by disease, warfare and their enslavement by European settlers in the 18th century.
Is the lichen extinct, too?
“The million-dollar question is, ‘Where is this lichen?’ ” Laurel Kaminsky, a digitization manager at the Florida Museum of Natural History who helped confirm the lichen’s uniqueness, asks in a news release.
Lichens are dual organisms — a symbiotic relationship between fungus and algae. Since fungus can’t use the sun for photosynthesis, some partner up with algae, which are then able to thrive in environments where they could never survive alone. Unlike moss or plants, lichens don’t have roots or leaves.
If C. timucua can be found, it’s likely in the same pine scrub habitat where it was originally found in the 19th and 20th centuries. The area is biologically distinct and known as a rich environment for plants and animals, but Florida’s pine scrub is increasingly endangered by development. Conservation groups estimate that only 10 to 15 percent of the state’s scrub habitat remains.
To find more C. timucua, the researchers are calling on the public to photograph the lichen and upload their results to the Timucua Heart Lichen Project, a citizen science project on the iNaturalist platform. Although the public is encouraged to join in the hunt, the scientists warn not to disturb the lichen if it’s found.
“The optimist in me says it’s still out there,” Kaminsky says.