SRU biology majors emerge from woodland with major find
(From left) Slippery Rock University biology majors Jennifer Bauer, Gabby Gette and Erica Signor discovered unique species of lichens at McConnells Mill State Park. The 11 different varieties previously unknown to inhabit western Pennsylvania.
Dec. 8, 2016
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - The names Bauer, Gette and Signor may not be as familiar to the science community as Mendel, Pasteur and van Leeuwenhoek, but a trio of Slippery Rock University biology majors are making discoveries that may very well garner some attention.
The trio - Jennifer Bauer, a senior from Tionesta; Gabby Gette, a senior from Fairview; and Erica Signor, a senior from Harrisburg - wasn't expecting to turn lichen research on its ear, but that's exactly what has happened when the threesome ventured into local woodlands for an undergraduate research project.
The students have identified 11 species of lichens that were previously unknown to grow in Lawrence County. Of that group, several are new to northwestern Pennsylvania.
View of a lichen sample taken from a light microscope.
A lichen is a composite organism that arises from algae and/or cyanobacteria living among filaments of a fungus in a symbiotic relationship. The combined life form has properties that are very different from the properties of its component organisms. Lichens come in many colors, sizes and forms. The properties are sometimes plant-like, but lichens are not plants. Lichens may have tiny, leafless branches, flat leaf-like structures, flakes that lie on the surface like peeling paint or other growth forms.
Different lichen species can be identified based on color, including: black, gray, white, green, yellow, orange or red.
"Now we know some rare and newly reported lichen species are in the area, and we can inform the local Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to help with conservation of these organisms," said Bauer.
The trio conducted their fieldwork as part of an independent biology study course, supervised by David Krayesky, associate professor of biology.
The students said their findings are an excellent example of how life can be hidden right under our noses.
"It is almost crazy to think that (we) have discovered something that no one has ever found in this specific area and that makes it really exciting," said Bauer. "It really reinforces the fact that the world around us is always changing, even if people are not paying attention to it."
Bauer added that lichens display a surprising complexity when you get "up close and personal" with them. "I found myself noticing them in more places in my everyday life the further I delved into my research," she said.
The group made their discoveries through hiking trips to McConnells Mill State Park, going far beyond the mill itself and deep into the woods along Slippery Rock Creek.
"We obtained permits to carefully remove samples from rocks and trees without destroying the population, as some of it is left behind," Bauer said. "This was extremely important because if we just so happened to find a new species, we want to protect the limited numbers in the area so they can flourish."
In processing their collections, the trio recorded the date, location, latitude and longitude of the lichen, and what type of surface the lichen was growing on, such as a tree or rock.
Specimens were then examined at SRU using a light microscope and dichotomous keys to identify the collected species. "We then compared our findings to those previously published in peer reviewed journals to determine if the species had been recorded in the area before," said Bauer.
"We collected just a portion of each lichen - enough for us to identify to the species level ¬- and left the rest behind," said Signor. "We took those samples back to the lab and have been working on keying them out based on different characteristics."
Gette said having a hand in making such a scientific discovery was fulfilling.
"It was incredibly gratifying every time we found a lichen not previously reported as being from our area," said Gette. "It is also great to know we can help the commonwealth."
Gette added it is important to preserve the species because they each have an ecological niche and their presence can affect the plants and animals of that ecosystem.
"This research improved my knowledge of how important plant/lichen diversity is," she said. "This also showed me that land uses are always changing, and it is important to preserve organisms so rare to western Pennsylvania for that reason. If a parking lot were to be constructed on the land occupied by the only occurrence of a rare lichen in our area, that species could be lost from our region forever."
Krayesky said the trio's work is significant because the only published reports on lichen populations in Lawrence, Butler and Mercer counties is more than 60 years old.
"The ultimate goal is to publish their studies," he said. "The results can then be used by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources in their database of organisms occurring in Pennsylvania."
The trio's work is already paying dividends as Bauer won "Best Oral Presentation" for "An Updated Lichen Checklist for Lawrence County" Dec. 1 at the Westminster Symposium on the Environment.
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