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Diversity and ecological adaptations in Palaeogene lichens


Lichens are highly specialized symbioses between heterotrophic fungi and photoautotrophic green algae or cyanobacteria. The mycobionts of many lichens produce morphologically complex thalli to house their photobionts. Lichens play important roles in ecosystems and have been used as indicators of environmental change. Here we report the finding of 152 new fossil lichens from European Palaeogene amber, and hence increase the total number of known fossil lichens from 15 to 167. Most of the fossils represent extant lineages of the Lecanoromycetes, an almost exclusively lichen-symbiotic class of Ascomycota. The fossil lichens show a wide diversity of morphological adaptations that attached epiphytic thalli to their substrates, helped to combine external water storage with effective gas exchange and facilitated the simultaneous reproduction and dispersal of both partners in symbiosis. The fossil thallus morphologies suggest that the climate of European Palaeogene amber forests was relatively humid and most likely temperate.

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Figure 1: Growth forms of lichens preserved in Palaeogene amber.
Figure 2: Morphology and anatomy of Palaeogene lichen thalli.
Figure 3: SEM images of lichens from Palaeogene amber.
Figure 4: Reproductive structures of lichens from Palaeogene amber.
Figure 5: Taxonomic affiliation, thallus morphology and mode of reproduction of 161 lichen fossils preserved in Baltic and Bitterfeld amber (for details, see Supplementary Table 1).


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We thank V. Arnold (Heide), H. Grabenhorst (Wienhausen), C. Gröhn (Glinde), C. and H. W. Hoffeins (Hamburg), M. Kobbert (Münster), K. Nordman Ernst (Skagen), F. Witsch (Köln) and J. Wunderlich (Hirschberg) for providing specimens for this study, and G. Bechly (Stuttgart), A. Gehler (Göttingen) and C. Neumann (Berlin) for access to museum collections. D. Hause-Reitner (Göttingen) assisted with SEM imaging. This study was supported by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (grant to U.K.).

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U.K., A.R.S. and J.R. designed and performed research, analysed data and wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Jouko Rikkinen.

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Kaasalainen, U., Schmidt, A. & Rikkinen, J. Diversity and ecological adaptations in Palaeogene lichens. Nature Plants 3, 17049 (2017).

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