Intertidal Sciences blog | Dr Mike Kent | Dec 17th 2018

The Golden Hair Lichen, a gift fit for a King.

For those who are as sure-footed as a mountain goat and have a head for heights, there is to be found among the granite crevices at the summit of Pentire Point a tiny and precious thing: the Golden Hair Lichen (Teloschistes flavicans). It grows out of the rock as exquisite saffron wisps to form branched “shrubs” up to 4cm high, extremely sensitive to air pollution. Pentire Point is one of a diminishing number of places in the UK in which this species thrives.

Like all lichen, ours is the result of a partnership that has evolved between two Kingdoms: the Fungi and the Algae. The algal partner provides food and the fungal partner offers protection against the damaging effects of sun, frost, and wind. There are plenty of examples of nature “red in tooth and claw” where organisms compete to the death for survival, but this is an example of total cooperation between two very different life forms; neither would survive without the other.

Geologists tell us that the headland at Pentire was formed millions of years ago as a result of a cataclysmic crashing together of land masses. This caused the seafloor to rip open and allow red-hot liquid lava to be forced up from the bowels of the earth. Eventually, the lava cooled to form cliffs. Today, Pentire Point is a solid perch from which to view stunning scenery. Frozen by winter frosts, and sizzling hot in the summer, it is a harsh and demanding habitat for wildlife. The Golden Hair Lichen is one of the few organisms that can tolerate its extremes. It is a very ancient species that may have remained unchanged for millions of years. As such, it is sobering to think that it might have been one of the earliest colonizers of the Headland, growing out of the granite long before any human walked the earth.

Many of us will walk up to Pentire Head during the Festive Season to be filled with something other than food and drink. Immersed in the sights and sounds of the sea and coastal wildlife such as the beautiful Golden Hair Lichen, few will fail to experience a great sense of awe or wonder. As the Psalmist who took such delight in God’s creation tells us:

Great are the works of the Lord,

studied by all who have pleasure in them.

 Full of honour and majesty is his work,

and his righteousness endures for ever.

 He has caused his wonderful works to be remembered;

the Lord is gracious and merciful. (Psalm 111:2-4)