A lichen is a composite organism that arises from algae or cyanobacteria living among filaments of multiple fungi species in a mutualistic relationship. The combined lichen has properties different from those of its component organisms. Lichens come in many colors, sizes, and forms. The properties are sometimes plant-like, but lichens are not plants. Lichens may have tiny, leafless branches (fruticose), flat leaf-like structures (foliose), flakes that lie on the surface like peeling paint (crustose), a powder-like appearance (leprose), or other growth forms.

A "macrolichen" is a lichen that is either bush-like or leafy; all other lichens are termed "microlichens". Here, "macro" and "micro" do not refer to size, but to the growth form. Common names for lichens may contain the word moss (e.g., "reindeer moss", "Iceland moss"), and lichens may superficially look like and grow with mosses, but lichens are not related to mosses or any plant. Lichens do not have roots that absorb water and nutrients as plants do, but like plants, they produce their own nutrition by photosynthesis. When they grow on plants, they do not live as parasites, but instead use the plants as a substrate.

Lichens occur from sea level to high alpine elevations, in many environmental conditions, and can grow on almost any surface. Lichens are abundant growing on bark, leaves, mosses, on other lichens, and hanging from branches "living on thin air" (epiphytes) in rain forests and in temperate woodland. They grow on rock, walls, gravestones, roofs, exposed soil surfaces, and in the soil as part of a biological soil crust. Different kinds of lichens have adapted to survive in some of the most extreme environments on Earth: arctic tundra, hot dry deserts, rocky coasts, and toxic slag heaps. They can even live inside solid rock, growing between the grains.

It is estimated that 6% of Earth's land surface is covered by lichens. There are about 20,000 known species of lichens. Some lichens have lost the ability to reproduce sexually, yet continue to speciate. Lichens can be seen as being relatively self-contained miniature ecosystems, where the fungi, algae, or cyanobacteria have the potential to engage with other microorganisms in a functioning system that may evolve as an even more complex composite organism.

Lichens may be long-lived, with some considered to be among the oldest living things. They are among the first living things to grow on fresh rock exposed after an event such as a landslide. The long life-span and slow and regular growth rate of some lichens can be used to date events, which is called lichenometry.


A tree covered with leafy foliose lichens and shrubby fruticose lichens.

Lichen Different

A different species of lichen.