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  6. Lichen Vote Results: A primary food source for caribou tops online vote for national lichen species

Lichen Vote Results: A primary food source for caribou tops online vote for national lichen species

Troy McMullin © Canadian Museum of Nature


Star-tipped Reindeer Lichen (Cladonia stellaris) is a favoured winter food of caribou. 

Ottawa, March 31, 2020 – A species found in every province and territory of Canada that is a favoured winter food for caribou has topped the list in an online vote for a proposed national lichen.

The winner is the elegantly named Star-tipped Reindeer Lichen, which received just over a quarter (27%) of the 18,075 votes during the month-long poll. The runners-up each garnered close to one-fifth of the total—the bright-orange Elegant Sunburst Lichen, which is widespread in Canada but particularly abundant in the Arctic (20% of total or 3,601 votes), and the thread-like Horsehair lichen, which abounds on trees in the boreal forest (19% of total or 3,365 votes). Full results are listed below.

“We were delighted, and even surprised, to see such a great interest in these biologically important organisms,” says Dr. Troy McMullin, lichenologist with the Canadian Museum of Nature, which coordinated the project with a group of lichen experts across the country. “It shows the enthusiasm Canadians have for learning about the biodiversity in our country, for which lichens are great examples:”

There are more than 2,500 species of lichens in Canada, which has among the highest lichen biomass worldwide. Lichens are essentially “fungi that farm”, notes McMullin, as they consist of a partnership between a fungus that derives its energy from the algae and/or cynanobacteria with which it lives.

”The Star-tipped Reindeer Lichen is a worthy nominee for a proposed national species. It’s found in every province and territory, is easily recognized with its cauliflower-like tufts, and covers vast tracts of boreal woodland, a defining ecosystem of Canada,” explains McMullin.

The seven candidates for the vote were selected for being widespread in Canada and more common in Canada than in other countries, as well as for their ability to be recognized, their beauty, and their functions in nature. One or more scientists championed each lichen by providing a description proposing it as a national species.

Lichens are useful biological indicators of air quality, with specific species being considered as “canaries in the coalmine” since they are sensitive to pollutants in the atmosphere. They are among the first colonizers of bare rock and prevent erosion by stabilizing soil. Some fix atmospheric nitrogen for the soil and are the main source of food for caribou in winter months. They provide food, shelter, and camouflage for other animals, and have been used for traditional medicines and dyes.

With the vote concluded, the Star-tipped Reindeer Lichen (Cladonia stellaris) will be included in a larger project McMullin has facilitated with lichen experts across the country in order to identify a representative lichen species for each province and territory. These in turn are being decided by a consensus among experts, or public online votes. The team will aim to publish a scientific paper describing each species, and their relevance to each region, which can be used to boost any formal process to consider the various species as representative symbols.

Voting Results – February 26 to March 26, 2020

Lichen Species (with scientific name)

Number of Votes

% of total (18,075)

Star-tipped Reindeer Lichen (Cladonia stellaris):



Elegant Sunburst Lichen

(Xanthoria elegans)



Horsehair Lichen

(Bryoria sp.)



Yellow Map Lichen

(Rhizocarpon geographicum)



Boreal Oakmoss Lichen

(Evernia mesomorpha)




Common Freckle Pelt Lichen

(Peltigera aphthosa)



Concrentric Ring Lichen

(Arctoparmelia centrifuga)



More about Star-tipped Reindeer Lichen (Cladonia stellaris)
The star-tipped reindeer lichen forms yellowish green, rounded, foam-like tufts that not only cover thousands of square kilometres of boreal woodland soil from coast to coast to coast, but also extend into the temperate parts of southern Canada in certain habitats. It is abundant in every province and territory and has a very distinctive appearance; it is easily recognized by the general public because of the appearance of cauliflower-like heads. Star-tipped reindeer lichen is the slowest growing of the reindeer lichens, and, as a result, the large ground cover in an area suggests a mature and stable habitat. The representation of maturity and stability as well as the regularity of the branching pattern is appealing for a national lichen.

Although Cladonia rangiferina is the nominal true reindeer lichen (Rangifer is the scientific name of reindeer and caribou), star-tipped reindeer lichen is more important as winter food for both wild and domesticated reindeer and caribou. It is also used in the floral industry as a decoration and as miniature trees and shrubs in architectural models and miniature railroad layouts. The critical role of this species in the boreal ecosystem, the dominant landscape of Canada, surely makes it the most important lichen in Canada.

Information for media, including images:
Dan Smythe
Head, Media Relations
Canadian Museum of Nature
613.698.9253 (cell)