Ian Medeiros ’16Ian Medeiros ’16A National Geographic Society Research and Exploration Grant totaling $17,850 is awarded to Ian Medeiros ’16, Nate Pope ’07, and Professor Nishanta Rajakaruna ’94 for their upcoming work studying lichen in South Africa. The trio plans to travel overseas this winter.

“I am excited about this project as it is both an example of a faculty-student collaboration and it involves international experts from the US and South Africa,” Rajakaruna said. “Our efforts to investigate the diversity and ecology of lichens, an under-studied group of organisms, in a biodiversity hotspot like South Africa, will greatly contribute to our understanding about lichen diversity in that country.”

The project, officially titled “Examining the role of substrate chemistry and climate on the diversity of lichen species in South Africa,” includes collaborators Alan Fryday from Michigan State University and Stefan Siebert and Ricart Boneschans from North-West University, South Africa. Pope, a COA graduate, is currently a Ph.D. student in plant ecology at the University of Texas, Austin.  

Nate Pope ’07Nate Pope ’07

The lichen study will help shed light on how climate change is likely to affect elements of the South African natural world, Rajakaruna said.

“Our efforts to document rock-dwelling lichens along climatic gradients can help demonstrate how geology interacts with climatic factors to generate patterns of lichen diversity, providing insight on how climate change may affect South Africa’s lichen biota,” he said.

The National Geographic grant award is very competitive, with just 25 percent of applicants deemed worthy in any given year.

Informing conservation efforts

The project will examine how climate variables such as rainfall and temperature interact with rock and soil chemistry to influence the diversity of saxicolous (rock-dwelling) and terricolous (soil-dwelling) lichen species. Researches will collect lichens from adjacent serpentine and non-serpentine sedimentary outcrops distributed along a rainfall gradient to examine how diversity is influenced by both substrate chemistry and climate.

Ian Medeiros ’16 and Professor Nishanta Rajakaruna ’94.Ian Medeiros ’16 and Professor Nishanta Rajakaruna ’94.“Our study will inform conservation efforts by showing the edaphic diversity that should be protected to conserve South Africa’s lichen diversity. Since rainfall patterns may be altered by climate change, our research will also provide insight on how climate change may affect South Africa’s lichen biota,” Rajakaruna wrote in the grant proposal. “Our study will also go some way to addressing the lack of lichenological activity in South Africa by focusing on saxicolus microlichens as well as involving and training local scientists.”

Rajakaruna, currently appointed as a visiting researcher in South Africa, feels that this project will help expand critical research abilities in that country.

“The project has a strong focus on building research capacity in South Africa, which is a critical component of the work I plan to do during my appointment (2014-2017) as a visiting research professor at the Faculty of Natural Sciences, North-West University, Potchefstroom, South Africa,” he said.

Professor Nishanta Nishi Rajakaruna ’94.Professor Nishanta "Nishi" Rajakaruna ’94.From the abstract

“Lichens are symbiotic organisms that tolerate a range of substrates and environmental conditions and are widely used for environmental monitoring. Lichenology is a seriously understudied science in South Africa with no taxonomists/systematists or ecologists resident in the country. The South Africa lichen checklist contains 1750 taxa, with more macrolichens (foliose and fruticose species) than microlichens (crustose species) being reported. Because, when fully studied, macrolichens generally comprise about one third of an area’s lichen biota, this suggests that the microlichen biota of South Africa (especially rock inhabiting species) is seriously understudied and that over 1000 taxa remain to be discovered.”