Additional Text 1 Lichens and air pollution

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Additional Text 5.1

Lichens and air pollution

Lichens as a measure of air pollution due to sulfur dioxide

Lichens are mutualistic associations of a fungus and an alga. They are very sensitive to sulfur dioxide pollution in the air. After industrialisation, many lichen species became extinct in large areas (e.g. beard moss Usnea articulate). This is mainly due to sulfur dioxide pollution, but loss of habitat can also lead to reductions in some species. During the early and mid-twentieth century, air pollution levels in many MEDCs* were much greater than they are today. However, the air quality is declining today in many LEDCs**.

Lichens are widely used as bio-indicators. If air is very badly polluted, there may be no lichens present, just green algae. If the air is clean, lichens become abundant. A few lichen species can tolerate quite high levels of pollution and may be found on pavements, walls and tree bark in urban areas. The most sensitive lichens are shrubby and leafy, whereas the most pollution-tolerant lichens are crusty in appearance. Since industrialisation, many of the shrubby and leafy lichens such as Ramalina, Usnea and Lobaria species have declined in their range.

Some species of lichens have become more widely distributed as they are more tolerant of acid conditions; examples include Bryoria, Parmeliopsis, Pseudevernia and Rinodina.
* more economically developed countries

** less economically developed countries

Zonation of lichens

A lichen zone pattern which corresponds to the mean levels of sulfur dioxide experienced may be observed in large towns and cities, or around industrial complexes. Particular species of lichen present on tree bark can indicate the typical sulfur dioxide levels found in that area:

No lichens present: the air quality is very poor (zone 1)

Only crusty lichens present: the air quality is poor (zone 3)

Leafy lichens present: the air quality is moderate to good (zone 6)

Rare species present: the air quality is very clean (zone 10).

The table on the next page details zonation of lichens in increasing levels of sulfur dioxide pollution.
Sulfur dioxide air quality and lichen zones: the Hawksworth & Rose zone scale for the estimation of mean winter sulfur dioxide levels in England and Wales, using lichens growing on acidic and non-nutrient-enriched tree bark.


Moderately acid bark


Mean winter SO₂ / µg m–3


Only algae present, confined to base: Desmococcus viridis.



Algae extend up the trunk: Lecanora conizaeoides present but confined to base.

about 150


Lecanora conizaeoides extends up the trunk; Lepraria incana becomes frequent on the base.

about 125


Hypogymnia physodes and/or Parmelia saxatilis or P. sulcata appear on the base but do not extend up the trunk; Hypocenomyce scalaris, Lecanora expallens and Chaenotheca ferruginea often present.

about 70


Hypogymnia physodes or Parmelia saxatilis extend up the trunk to 2.5m or more; Parmelia glabratula, P. subrudecta, Parmeliopsis ambigua and Lecanora chlarotera appear; Calicium viride, Chrysothrix candelaris and Pertusaria amara may occur; Ramalina farinacea and Evernia prunastrii present but largely confined to the base; Platismatia glauca may be present on horizontal branches.

about 60


Parmelia caperata present at least on the base; rich in species of Pertusaria (e.g. P.albescens, P. hymenea) and Parmelia (e.g. P. revoluta (except in NE), P. tiliacea, P. exasperatula (in N)); Graphis elegans appearing; Pseudevernia furfuracea and Bryoria fuscescens present in upland areas.

about 50


Parmelia caperata, P. revoluta (except in NE), P. tiliacea, P. exasperatula (in N) extend up the trunk; Usnea subfloridana, Pertusaria hemisphaerica, Rinodina roboris (in S) and Arthonia impolita (in E) appear.

about 40


Usnea ceratina, Parmelia perlata or P. reticulata (S and W) appear; Rinodina roboris extends up the trunk (in S); and Usnea rubiginea (in S) usually present.

about 35


Lobaria pulmonaria, L. amplissima, Pachyphiale cornea, Dimerella lutea, or Usnea florida present; if these are absent, crustose flora well developed with often more than 25 species on larger well-lit trees.

under 30


Lobaria amplissima, L. scrobiculata, Sticta limbata, Pannaria spp., Usnea articulata, U. filipendula or Teloschistes flavicans present to locally abundant.


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