A lichen (/ˈlkən/ LY-kən, also UK: /ˈlɪən/ LITCH-ən) is a composite organism that arises from algae or cyanobacteria living among filaments of multiple fungi species[1] in a mutualistic relationship.[2][3][4] Lichens have properties different from those of their component organisms. They come in many colors, sizes, and forms and are sometimes plant-like, but are not plants. They may have tiny, leafless branches (fruticose); flat leaf-like structures (foliose); grow crust-like, adhering tightly to a surface (substrate) like a thick coat of paint (crustose);[5] have a powder-like appearance (leprose); or other growth forms.[6]

A tree covered with leafy foliose lichens and shrubby fruticose lichens
Common lichen growth forms
Letharia vulpina, wolf lichen, grows like a multiple-branched tuft or leafless mini-shrub, so it has a fruticose growth form.
Flavoparmelia caperata has leaf-like structures, so it is foliose.
Caloplaca marina grows like an orange crust coating the rock, so it is crustose.
Caloplaca thallincola [sv] grows like a crust, and in a pattern that radiates outward from the center, so it has a crustose placodioid growth form.
Pannaria lurida forms small leaf-like scales crustose below but free at the tips, so it is squamulose.
Chrysothrix chlorina grows like powder dusted on the rock so it is leprose.
Collema nigrescens is gelatinous, without internal structure for its parts.

A macrolichen is a lichen that is either bush-like or leafy; all other lichens are termed microlichens.[2] Here, "macro" and "micro" do not refer to size, but to the growth form.[2] Common names for lichens may contain the word moss (e.g., "reindeer moss", "Iceland moss"), and lichens may superficially look like and grow with mosses, but they are not closely related to mosses or any plant.[4]:3 Lichens do not have roots that absorb water and nutrients as plants do,[7]:2 but like plants, they produce their own nutrition by photosynthesis.[8] When they grow on plants, they do not live as parasites, but instead use the plant's surface as a substrate.

Lichens occur from sea level to high alpine elevations, in many environmental conditions, and can grow on almost any surface.[8] They are abundant growing on bark, leaves, mosses, or other lichens[7] and hanging from branches "living on thin air" (epiphytes) in rainforests and in temperate woodland. They grow on rock, walls, gravestones, roofs, exposed soil surfaces, rubber, bones, and in the soil as part of biological soil crusts. Various lichens have adapted to survive in some of the most extreme environments on Earth: arctic tundra, hot dry deserts, rocky coasts, and toxic slag heaps. They can even live inside solid rock, growing between the grains.

It is estimated that 6–8% of Earth's land surface is covered by lichens.[9] There are about 20,000 known species.[10] Some lichens have lost the ability to reproduce sexually, yet continue to speciate.[7][11] They can be seen as being relatively self-contained miniature ecosystems, where the fungi, algae, or cyanobacteria have the potential to engage with other microorganisms in a functioning system that may evolve as an even more complex composite organism.[12][13][14][15] Lichens may be long-lived, with some considered to be among the oldest living things.[4][16] They are among the first living things to grow on fresh rock exposed after an event such as a landslide. The long life-span and slow and regular growth rate of some species can be used to date events (lichenometry).

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