Lichenologist Manuela Dal Forno collects a lichen specimen in the Itatiaia National Park, Brazil (Photo: Marcelo P. Marcelli)
Everyone knows about “the birds and the bees”, but what about the fungi and the ants? Some couples in nature are more complex than a pair of love birds: They reflect symbiotic associations that benefit different species, and sometimes it takes more than two to tango.
Treat yourself to a glass of wine and learn about these fascinating alliances from two Smithsonian scientists, lichenologist Manuela Dal Forno and entomologist Natasha Mehdiabadi—and celebrate Valentine’s Day by looking at some of Mother Nature’s greatest examples of relationships that work.
For Dal Forno, the small cloud-blobs found on trees and rocks are a whole world to be discovered. Lichens have long been thought to be a symbiosis between a fungus and an alga, but it turned out that this relationship is not so exclusive. At the Natural History Museum and in Texas, she and other lichenologists around the world are investigating this love affair and the diversity hidden behind these multifaceted systems.
Lichens harbor a diverse and complex community of bacteria and other small organisms. Between their ecological importance, use in traditional medicine, pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries, and their prevalence all around us, lichen are the charming niche meta-organisms that you’ll be eager to hunt for in your own backyard.
For Mehdiabadi, the relationship of the year award goes to specialized ants and their fungal farms. She is a research associate in the AntLab at the Natural History Museum, where her colleagues primarily focus on the study of fungus-growing ants (including the well-known leaf cutters).
Today more than 230 species of fungus-farming ants participate in intricate symbioses with their cultivated fungi. These tiny creatures depend on the cultivation of fungus for food, and in return, they nourish, protect, and disperse their fungal cultivars. Using DNA sequence data and computer algorithms, Smithsonian scientists are shedding light on the origin and evolution of this spectacular biological system.