Lichen Projects for Universities

A student at work on lichen-rich grasslandLichens provide excellent subjects for advanced projects – they are present all year round and can be found in many habitats, both rural and urban, at sea-level, high altitudes, all latitudes and even in deserts. Recent research shows lichens are excellent indicators of environmental quality and shifts in their occurrence may link with climate change. Reports in The Lichenologist, The Ecologist, Conservation Biology, British Wildlife, and other journals, provide further and more varied information. Three very useful background books are:

  • William Purvis Lichens (Natural History Museum, London);
  • Oliver Gilbert Lichens (HarperCollins New Naturalist series);
  • Judith Bell’s Doing your research project (McGrawHill – Open University).

A top-class project starts with a great idea, and this may come from a chance comment in a lecture, your own observations or a report you have read, for example. At degree and post-graduate levels defining your objective or hypothesis is the crucial first step in planning a project so that your results yield clear outcomes. Before going out for a preliminary look in the field (or recce), to see if there are appropriate lichens and your idea has the scope for developing into a project, do a background search. Has anyone else explored this idea? Have they looked at the particular habitat you have in mind? Talk over your idea with a fellow student or tutor, if you can, and consider how realistic the project is, as well as its timing and the location for your study. Fieldwork is an essential part of many higher-education courses as it provides opportunity for the development of skills. Make sure your project fulfils any requirements of your course, such as:

  • Fieldwork skills;
  • Research or experimental design;
  • Sampling or surveying;
  • Observation;
  • Identification (taxonomic skills);
  • Quantitative methods;
  • Teamwork;
  • Professional skills:
  • Teamwork;
  • Presentation;


While some projects may take the form of a descriptive survey, most projects provide you with quantitative (or numerical) data. Take account of how your results can demonstrate the degree of ‘truth’ (probability) of any hypothesis you set when planning your project, and this may inform your methodology. The OU Project Guide: Fieldwork and Statistics for Ecological Projects by Neil Chalmers and Phil Parker (available through Field Studies Council publications) is well-trusted and very helpful. You may have followed a course in evaluative quantitative methods and will probably use an electronic (statistical) tool with numerical data.

Remember you should always act safely and anticipate hazards, for the sake of yourself and others. Universities and institutions have health and safety guidelines – be aware of them in planning and carrying out your project. (Also see the NERC Guidance Note: A Safe System of Fieldwork prefaced by Scott of the Antarctic’s maxim It is better to be a live donkey than a dead lion.) If your project takes you off public land and onto private property you should always seek permission from the owners. Most are cooperative, and even interested, if they understand the purpose and duration of your work.

Recent degree-level projects have included:

  • the use of lichens to monitor air quality (a) at the junction of a major road in Oxfordshire; (b) in an inner city (Manchester) park; and (c) along a transect from the outer edge of a Dorset woodland to its interior.
  • Pollution in Falmouth harbour has been investigated by recording patterns of the distribution of indicator lichens.
  • A BLS summer vacation scholarship supported the successful testing, in a New Zealand lichen Icmadophila splachnirima, of the hypothesis that in certain ‘unfavourable’ microhabitats the development of lichen fruiting-bodies (apothecia) is reversibly arrested at an early stage and reproduction switches to vegetative propagation (via ‘soredia’).


  • We can put you in touch with a local lichenologist, or provide e-mail support, if you'd like some help. If you are a student working on an individual project or coursework involving lichens and need help, click on Project Questionnaire.

  • Send the completed questionnaire as an email attachment to Ann Allen.