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UC Riverside scientist names lichen for President Obama

April 16, 2009 | 10:21 am

Lichen You could say Kerry Knudsen took a lichen to our new president.

Knudsen, a curator of the plant-like combination of fungi and algae at the UC Riverside Herbarium, named a new species of tough, orange-colored lichen, Caloplaca obamae, after Barack Obama.

“I supported him running for president and while we were doing the collecting, the election was in its last couple of weeks,” Knudsen, 58, said today. “It was real suspense so we were talking about that every day.”

Coincidentally, the final peer review of the paper came back on Obama’s inauguration day and Knudsen finished the revisions while watching the event on television, sealing the deal. The paper was published a few weeks ago in the journal Opuscula Philolichenum, which Knudsen said means “little works of lichen lovers.”

Knudsen, who has studied lichens for about 10 years and roamed all over the California coast looking for them, said the naming decision wasn’t about seeking publicity.

“After the Bush administration, I appreciated the change to an administration supporting science and science education,” said Knudsen.

The lichen has so far been found on only about 10 patches of soil, including an old horse or cattle pen, on Santa Rosa Island in Channel Islands National Park, Knudsen said. The largest patch was about five inches across.

“There are several endemic species of soil lichen in California,” Knudsen said. “Most are very, very rare. “

The Channel Islands are great environments for the plant-like organisms because they like damp, undisturbed environments. In surveys the university has done in partnership with the National Park Service, researchers have cataloged more than 300 species on the island. Most of them had been identified before.

The history of cattle and sheep grazing on the island probably relegated the Obama lichen to a couple of secluded hide-outs for a long time, but since grazing stopped around 10 years ago, the lichen have had a chance to bounce back. This was the one trait in his lichen that Knudsen said reminded him of the president.

“It’s resilient,’” Knudsen said with a laugh. “As the election was going, it was neck and neck for a while. It almost like Obama was almost out of it there.” But, of course, Obama won.

Knudsen, who has named about 25 lichen and fungi in his day, said most species get their names from places or their structure. Knudsen said other scientists have named three lichen after him, and he can tell the president it is an honor.

“I think there’s a dung beetle named after Bush,” Knudsen said. “That’s definitely an insult.”

Actually, it was a slime-mold beetle and the scientist actually seemed to want it to be an homage. But Knudsen realizes the honorees don’t necessarily see it that way.

“Once I met a lady whose husband’s specialty was lice and he named a species of lice after her,” Knudsen said. “She didn’t quite like that.”

-- Jia-Rui Chong

Photo: Caloplaca obamae growing on Pleistocene soil on Santa Rosa Island. Credit: J. C. Lendemer.