CA Mushrooms
CA Mushrooms

Book Review

Field Guide to the Lichens of Great Smoky Mountains National Park

By Erin A. Tripp & James C. Lendemer, Illustrations by Bobbi Angell
University of Tennessee Press
2020; softbound, 572 pp, 7 × 10 inches
ISBN 13-978-1-62190-514-1

Following on the heels of the recent spate of new mushroom guides for the southeastern U.S. and other parts of eastern North America, we have a large new addition, but this time with lichens as the stars. Erin Tripp is an assistant professor of biology at the University of Colorado and James Lendemer is an assistant curator at the New York Botanical Garden.

Although not as large as the huge and impressively illustrated Lichens of North America, this is still quite a substantial and attractive production, covering in detail approximately 600 of the more than 900 lichens recorded in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a well-known biodiversity hotspot that straddles the Tennessee-North Carolina border. And the 300-plus species that aren’t detailed are included in the keys and a Park checklist that appears as an appendix. This comprehensive approach will be appreciated by knowledgeable lichen-lovers but involved some trade-offs that make the book less user-friendly for those with little experience with these composite organisms.

The content is structured in five “Parts.” Part 1 Lichen biology — What are lichens? Why lichens? Lichen biology, Lichen morphology, Lichen reproduction, and Lichen occurrence and biogeography. Part 2 Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Evolution of a landscape and its culture — Geography, Geology and topography, and Climate. Part 3 Biological diversity of Great Smoky Mountains National Park — Ecosystems, Plants and animals, Lichens: history of study in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and Development of this book. Part 4 Lichens of Great Smoky Mountains National Park — How to use this field guide and Lichens of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Part 5 Keys to identify the more than 900 lichens and allied fungi of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

An Epilogue, Appendix 1: Tables (one listing important pre-1941 works dealing with lichens of Eastern North America and the other listing collecting localities in the Park), Appendix 2: Checklist, and Literature Cited complete the book. There is no glossary and no index.

Parts 1–3 are fairly standard introductory material with self-explanatory titles. The text is supported by excellent line drawings by Bobbi Angell and attractive color photographs.

Part 4 comprises the main section of the book. Unfortunately, “How to use this field guide” provides no information on how to actually use the guide. Although the keys in Part 5 allow one to attempt to determine the species in hand, there is no key or other device to help the user hone in on a genus or other group of morphologically similar species and, from there, proceed by matching photos and text descriptions. If the user is new to the game and finds the keys daunting, then the only recourse is start flipping pages and looking for an image that appears similar.

There are no genus descriptions. The species descriptions are presented in alphabetical order by genus and then by the species epithet. The book is the result of collecting conducted over 10 years and the rather impressive accumulation of over 7,000 specimens. Thus, the descriptions reflect first-hand observations by Tripp and Lendemer.

Each description includes the Latin binomial without authority, common name, a color photograph, small-scale North American range map, and helpful text as Notes, Chemistry, Niche, and Key Features. The common names appear to have mostly been coined for this book and I have, shall we say, reservations about many of them. I have a difficult time understanding how manufactured names such as “fecund spongepants,” “fish on chips,” “cerulean eyeshadow,” “moonshiner’s flask,” “little black dots and I don’t care,” “Lobe-y McLobe Face,” “a hopeful encounter,” “a trivial pursuit,” “that’s debatable,” and “after the deluge” will facilitate communication about the organisms, especially when most of the book’s users are likely to be experienced persons for whom use of Latin binomials is second nature. On the other hand, I very much like the approach of including whatever information seems best for a species rather than slavishly following an overly structured approach. “Notes” mainly gives hints for identifying the species, including mention of possible look-alikes. Unfortunately, the introductory material fails to explain what is meant by “Chemistry” so someone new to lichens would have no clue what K, C, and P with plus or minus signs and color names are referring to (these are “spot” test reagents applied to parts of the lichen for possible color reactions — K is potassium hydroxide [KOH], C is household bleach, and P is p-phenylenediamine). “Niche” comprises substrate, habitat, and distribution. “Key features” usually repeats highlights from the previous sections.

The photographs range in size from single-column-width (2-3/4 inches) and varied height (from about 1-5/8 to 4-1/4 inches) to double-column width (5-1/2 inches) with height roughly 3-1/2 inches. The former comprise the large majority and there also are a few 1-1/2-column-width images and small inset photos here and there. The photos are sharp and well-exposed but, in many cases, the small ones make it difficult to see the detail necessary for a confident species determination — the preponderance of small images likely was a necessary trade-off for the high species / page count. Each caption includes the collection number of the illustrated specimen.

Part 5 comprises 78 pages of keys to over 900 species, including all those known to occur in the park. The principal features used include macromorphology, habitat, substrate, chemical reactions, and ascospore size and shape. To get the most out of the keys, one would need to be familiar with the terminology (for instance, what are “exciple” and “calicioid fungi?” — there is no explanation anywhere) and have access to both dissecting and compound microscopes, as well as a thin-layer chromatography apparatus (they refer to TLC without explanation). Given the lack of a glossary and index, if one encounters an unfamiliar term, the only recourse is to page through the introductory material in search of an explanation and often this will prove unsuccessful. Most of the leads utilize only one or two features, which makes them appear simple but such simplicity usually increases the chances for error. The format of the keys is simply awful. The font is very small, everything is single-spaced, and there is no system of indentation and/or line spacing to help the user maintain a sense of where they are. This is particularly a problem because the authors have used a “split-couplet” approach, common to botanical keys. Thus, the two leads of many couplets are separated — in extreme cases by more than a page. This, combined with the small font, close line spacing, and lack of indents often makes it difficult to find the second lead and to compare it with its mate. Folks with experience likely will be able to deal with this, but newcomers could be overwhelmed.

Overall, this is an attractive, well-researched, comprehensive book and the species treatments are well done. It is a great addition to the literature on the Park’s wildlife (in the British sense of including things like plants and fungi) and experienced lichen-people should find it very useful. However, I suspect the lack of aids for less-experienced folks might make it overly intimidating for them.

— Review by Steve Trudell
— Originally published in Fungi