Video: Lichen like you’ve never seen it before

You’ve probably seen lichens if you’ve ever been outside, but have you ever looked closely? For 150 years, scientists thought they had lichens figured out. But recently, researchers in Montana noticed something very unusual: two lichens, long known to be different, were showing up as identical in genetic tests. Something had to be missing from the centuries-old equation. Science Outside Editor Andy Johnson took part in a science filmmaking workshop at the International Wildlife Film Festival called the “Filmmaker Labs,” and was part of a team that created this short video tracing the process of the discovery. Here’s a quick background from Andy on the video behind the research:

During the Filmmaker Labs workshop, we split into groups of four and were assigned a local contact who would act as a “client” for a short film product. Our group had the pleasure of working with John McCutcheon, a researcher at the University of Montana, whose lab focuses on lichens and symbiosis. His lab had recently been part of a groundbreaking discovery, something that completely redefined a very familiar group of organisms—lichens—so we had a great story to unravel. We wanted to create something engaging, that didn’t stray into stale reporting of details. We were drawn to the spontaneous process of their discovery and problem-solving, and hoped to portray the accessibility of that curiosity and the possibility of more discoveries lying in wait—perhaps in your own backyard.

Each group had about three days to plan, shoot, and edit the short film, so after a couple sleepless nights, we had something pulled together to show at the festival. Since then, it screened at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival as a finalist in the “Student and Emerging” category, and now we’re excited to have it selected for National Geographic’s Short Film Showcase.

Lichen 1 (Nathanael Coyne)
Photo by Nathanael Coyne via Flickr

Andy Johnson is currently working as an Associate Producer in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Multimedia Productions department. He has loved birds since elementary school, but discovered the wide range of opportunities to pursue that passion—both scientific and otherwise—during undergraduate studies at Cornell, where he first encountered video production as a tool for science communication and conservation. He’s looking forward to more opportunities to use media to affect conservation policy, primarily where birds can serve as indicators of ecosystem health and touchpoints for communicating about broad conservation challenges. You can see more of his work on instagram @andyjohnsonphoto or by visiting

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