What is the difference between lichen and moss?

Lichen is typically light gray in color and may have disc-shaped fruiting bodies.

Mosses and lichens are often confused, in part because many common names for lichens include the word “moss”. In fact, the two organisms are radically different and not even in the same realm. Both are fascinating organisms, often overlooked because they are small and not very showy. They grow all over the world and are used for dyes, animal fodder, ornamentation, medicines and religious practices.

Moss on the rocks around a waterfall.

Lichens are perhaps the most amazing living things on Earth because they represent a symbiotic relationship between a fungus and algae or cyanobacteria. The symbiotic nature of lichen was not fully understood until the 19th century, when the idea was first proposed. They form a fascinating example of cooperative relationships in nature, with the fungus using the algae or bacteria for energy, while the algae or bacteria enjoy the protection the fungus provides.

A layer of moss.

These organisms reproduce in a variety of ways. Many produce spores that try to capture algae or partner bacteria, while others reproduce through fragments of lichen that separate and spread. They can grow almost anywhere in the world, from extremely acidic soil to freezing arctic conditions, and are found growing on trees, rocks, and everything in between. Contrary to popular belief, lichens that colonize trees, such as members of the Usnia family, are not harmful to their hosts and, in fact, often capture valuable nutrients.

Often, a microscope is needed to tell the difference between lichen and moss.

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Lichens take three forms. Crusty lichens, often found growing on rocks, are characterized by a crusty appearance. They are often colored and create the bright stripes seen on rocks in the distance. Leafy lichens are leafy or fibrous and are often found growing in the ground or around trees. Fruit lichens form stalks, which sometimes form shiny fruiting bodies.

Lichens form through a symbiotic relationship between algae and fungi.

Most observers are unaware of the small, ubiquitous lichen, but a determined researcher can find hundreds of species in a short walk in any region, from the depths of the forest to the streets of a large urban area. They can be extremely difficult to identify properly, often requiring the use of a microscope and specialized staining to discover the merged identities that come together to form the lichen.

Moss, on the other hand, is a plant. It belongs to the bryophyte division, which is one of the most genetically diverse on Earth, including 10,000 species in 700 genera. These organisms can also be found throughout the world and form an important part of many ecologies as they prevent erosion, retain water and feed many species of animals and insects. Moss is an archaic non-vascular plant, meaning it has existed in various forms for millions of years and reproduces by expelling spores. Like lichen, it can also reproduce from broken parts of the mother plant.

Physically, these two organisms can be difficult to distinguish. In general, mosses are green, grow in dark, moist areas, and have small leaf-like structures in addition to stems. Lichens often have a gray or white appearance, and many also create disc-shaped fruiting bodies.

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