What Scientists Thought Was a Single Species Is Actually 126-Plus

One species of lichen, genetic sequencing revealed, was many, many, many species

Photo: George Shepherd

What researchers thought was one unassuming species of lichen turns out to actually be 126 species—if not more, researchers discovered. The lichen in question, Dictyonema glabratum, is well known and grows throughout the Americas. But it took genetic testing to reveal its previously unrecognized diversity, Ed Yong reports for National Geographic

As the Field Museum researchers told Yong, the discovery represents "the most spectacular case of unrecognized species richness” to date. Yong:

The late Estonian fungus specialist Erast Parmasto described it in 1978 but Lücking’s team have been slowly chipping away at this single identity since 2004. When they discovered a second distinct lichen in Costa Rica, one species became two. When they compared the genes of a small number of specimens in 2013, two species became 16.

Now, the team, including graduate student Manuela Dal-Forno, has finished analysing 356 samples collected throughout Central and South America—more than ten times the number from their earlier study. And with that, 16 species became 126, which the team are classifying under two new groups: Cora and Corella.

While that number is astounding, the team believes more diversity still awaits discovery—most of the 126 species came from a one geographic region. Extrapolating from their current results, they estimated that there could be 452 types of these lichen—almost 30 times the 16 they had identified just last year.

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