Cairngorms offer up botanical secrets

Two striking discoveries in the Cairngorms National Park have served to underscore the need for increased research into Britain’s extensive – but often overlooked - communities of lichens. The call comes after Dr Rebecca Yahr, a Lichen Biodiversity Scientist at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE), uncovered two tiny botanical gems clinging unnoticed in one of the country’s most heavily documented mountain regions. Now, the quest is on to discover how many more scientific surprises are waiting to be found, right under our feet.

“These finds are significant to British research work”, said Dr Yahr. “The first, Bellemerea alpina hadn't been seen in Britain for more than 30 years, despite attempts by expert lichenologists. Things weren't looking promising. Now we have a confirmation that this species still occurs in Britain, with a site clearly located, it becomes a going concern for UK conservation.

“The second, Sporastatia testudinea is also rare. There are only two previous records of the species in Scotland, only one of which has any associated detailed locality or date information, and very little is known about its ecology. Together, these finds highlight the need for individuals and partnerships – professionals, such as RBGE and Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), often working with experienced amateurs – to develop their research around the country.”

While lichens are hugely important to science - for example, as pollution indicators - there are challenges in their study. Not actually part of the plant kingdom at all, they are made up of two or more closely interacting organisms: a fungus and one or more partners known as photobionts. Being a specialist area of research they have often struggled to get their fair share of attention or funding. As a result, less research has been undertaken in this area than in more mainstream botany. Therefore, much less is known about the distribution, and ecology and British conservation is hampered.

“In light of what we discovered, there is new impetus to find what else has so far been missed”, added Dr Yahr. “It is very early days in terms of montane lichen work, but it's looking extremely promising. Working in partnerships to provide inventories, along with taxonomic surveys and monitoring of known sites will help us understand far better the diversity of the Cairngorms and other parts of Scotland”.

Echoing Dr Yahr’s sentiments, David Genney, of SNH concluded: “Finding these species demonstrates how much we still have to discover in the Scottish mountains. These discoveries also come at a time when there are uncertainties as to how species will respond to climate change, so further research and survey in our uplands is as important as ever. SNH and RBGE will continue to work together to maintain and build the evidence and skills we need to protect these valuable species.”

The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh is a charity (registration number SC007983)