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USGS Geology in the Parks

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Lava flow trail stop 3

The First to Return

Lichen on basalt

Almost every sizeable rock you see at Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument has splotches of bright greens and yellows scattered across its surface. These splotches are lichen, part fungus and part plant (an algae) living together to function as a single organism. These hardy teams are the very first colonizers to appear after volcanic eruptions.

Lichen on basalt

A newly-hardened lava flow is a very harsh environment for living things. Lichens are especially adapted to make the most of this inhospitable landscape. They are able to live and grow with very little soil or water. Lichens depend on the dust and water that collects on their leafy surfaces and in basalt vesicles to provide the nutrients and moisture they need to survive here.

Lichens also pave the way for other, somewhat less hardy colonizers, by helping to break down the rock into soil. Once there is a bit of soil on the rock and cinders, seeds from other plants can sprout and grow, with animals that feed on them following close behind.

Learn more about lichens at the Lichenland website.

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