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Tropical lichens Report Summary

Project ID: 705777
Funded under: H2020-EU.1.3.2.

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - Tropical lichens (Symbionts and changing environment: Lichen diversity and photobiont associations in tropical mountain ecosystems)

Reporting period: 2016-09-01 to 2017-08-31

Summary of the context and overall objectives of the project

Lichen symbioses are stable mutualistic associations in which eukaryotic algae and/or cyanobacteria provide carbohydrates for heterotrophic fungi. This represents a highly successful nutritional strategy, which allows symbiotic organisms to greatly expand their ecological ranges. During their diverse evolutionary history lichen symbioses have evolved a plethora of different growth forms and habitat ecologies, and today lichens are found in most terrestrial ecosystems from the tropics to polar regions. Generally, lichen fungi (mycobionts) are highly selective toward their phototrophic symbionts (photobionts).
The application of modern molecular methods to lichen systematics has recently revealed unprecedented levels of genetic diversity in many lineages of lichen-symbiotic organisms. While some groups of boreal and temperate macrolichens are relatively well known, very little is still known about tropical lineages and hundreds of new lichen species have recently been identified from the Neotropics alone. Our knowledge of African lichens is particularly poor and mainly comes from the pre-molecular era. The DNA-based methods have clearly shown that many traditional species concepts and nomenclature need critical updating and revision, but such methods have so far only been applied to very few lichen specimens collected from scattered locations within tropical Africa.
The specific research objectives of this project are 1) to provide the first account of lichen symbiont diversity in tropical mountains, including surveys (a) of remnant forest patches in a global biodiversity hot spot and (b) along a steep natural climatic gradient on the slopes of a high tropical volcano; and 2) to elucidate the effects of human induced environmental change to lichen symbiotic organisms, including the effects of (a) dwindling and fragmentation of indigenous forests, (b) expansion of agricultural and other disturbed ecosystems, and (c) changing climate studied along a naturally existing gradient.
The study areas of this project are located in tropical mountains of Kenya and Tanzania. Taita Hills in southeast Kenya is part of a well-known biodiversity hotspot and home to a high diversity of endemic species, while the more recently formed dormant volcano Mt. Kilimanjaro in the northeast Tanzania provides pronounced altitudinal zonation of vegetation on its slopes. Currently these African montane forests are threatened by human activities, including land clearing, firewood collection, introduction of foreign species, and recently also the effects of climate change. Still the remaining cloud forests function as ‘natural water towers’ for the semiarid plains around the mountains, and also epiphytic lichens play their own role in maintaining this ecosystem service.

Work performed from the beginning of the project to the end of the period covered by the report and main results achieved so far

The practical work during the reporting period towards achieving the objectives includes systematic sampling of various study plots: Lichen diversity has been sampled from 32 study plots (representing at least four different vegetation types) situated in six separate, indigenous forest fragments in the Taita Hills, Kenya; from 22 study plots on exotic tree plantations (e.g. Acacia, Pinus, Cupressus, Grevillea, and Eucalyptus plantations) situated nearby the indigenous forest fragments of Taita Hills; and from 65 study plots situated along five altitudinal gradients reaching from savanna to alpine Helichrysum heaths and including the several forest ecosystems in between on the slope of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. Additionally, material from the forests situated on the slopes of Mt. Kasigau, Kenya, has been obtained.
Additionally, approximately 2600 specimens have been microscopically and micro-chemically studied and tentatively identified. Of these, DNA sequences have been produced from approximately 555 specimens and preliminary phylogenetic analyses have been performed for several fungal groups. One new lichenicolous genus and species has been described (manuscript in press), and another manuscript delimiting and describing photobiont-mediated cyanolichen guilds in the Taita Hills, Kenya, has been submitted for publication (manuscript under review).

Progress beyond the state of the art and expected potential impact (including the socio-economic impact and the wider societal implications of the project so far)

With this proposal, we have initiated a major new research project focusing on the lichens in East African mountains with particular emphasis on the diversity and evolution of lichen symbionts in natural and disturbed montane forests. The knowledge of African lichens is particularly poor and mainly comes from the pre-molecular era, and by using state-of-the-art molecular methods we have opened a previously practically untouched field of study. The results are expected to be widely applicable also to other tropical montane forest ecosystems and advance our understanding of the lichen symbiosis as a whole. Especially, our results will provide significant accumulation of knowledge about the lichen symbiont diversity in the tropics, most likely including knowledge of an abundance of new species. Additionally, the project will provide information on the effects of environmental change to symbiotic organisms, which is crucial for example for biodiversity conservation.

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