Epiphytic macrolichen communities indicate climate and air quality in the U.S. Midwest

Robert J. Smith, Sarah Jovan, Daniel Stanton, Susan Will-Wolf

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Epiphytic lichens directly exposed to atmospheric conditions can help detect how diffuse but pressing global changes may impact regional forest health. For 388 plots in the U.S. Midwest region, we developed indices for climate and air quality based on variation in tree-dwelling macrolichen community compositions (NMS ordination scores), species indicator values, and species environmental optima. Three lichen indices (NMS axis 1 scores, thermophile scores, and climate centroid scores) strongly covaried with thermal and evaporative-demand variables. By contrast, three other indices (NMS axis 2 scores, nitrophile scores and nitrogen centroid scores) were correlated with NHx (reduced N) deposition. Lichen communities had contrasting responses to different forms of N (NOx vs. NHx). Overall, thermal climate variables appeared more influential than air quality in structuring regional communities, based on greater explained variation of community compositions. Richness of species and of potentially adaptive secondary metabolites declined in hot, dry, or NHx-rich sites. With continued monitoring, significant changes in lichen-community based indices could signal directional shifts in forest vegetation. Changes in the thermophile or nitrophile indices more specifically would indicate the agent and rate of change for forest-altering trends.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)517-533
Number of pages17
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank Elisa Di Meglio and Peter Nelson for assistance sampling off-grid plots. For collecting data, we thank the hardworking women and men of the USFS Forest Inventory and Analysis program and its cooperators. Funding for RJS was through Joint Venture Agreement 19-JV-11261979-116 between the US Forest Service and Oregon State University.

Publisher Copyright:
Copyright ©2020 by The American Bryological and Lichenological Society, Inc.


  • Air quality
  • climate indication
  • community compositions
  • diversity
  • global changes
  • indicator species
  • nitrogen loads
  • secondary metabolites


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