British Soldiers

Cladonia cristatella

Copyright, Tom Volk,

British Soldiers is a lichen which gets its name from its resemblance to the uniforms worn by English soldiers during the Revolutionary War. A lichen is not just one organism, but a fungus and algae living together to form a new organism.

The fungus in British Soldiers is called Cladonia cristatella. The algae is known as Trebouxia erici. Because lichens take the name of the fungus part of the relationship, British Soldiers is also known as Cladonia cristatella.

Copyright, Tom Volk,

Each part of the lichen appears to help the other. The fungus provides the algae with a "house" to live in, and the algae makes food for the fungus. Each organism could live on its own, but they seem to do much better together. The algae can also form lichens with other species of fungi, but the fungus cannot make a lichen with any algae other than Trebouxia erici.

The main body of a lichen is called a "thallus." You can only have a thallus when the fungus and algae have joined. The bright colors of British Soldiers would not be there if the fungus was alone; instead it would look like a white blob.

The red part of British Soldiers makes spores. Spores are a lot like seeds from plants, in that they can travel by wind and start a new fungus. The new fungus will not become British Soldiers, though, until the algae joins it.

There are many different species of lichens, but there are three main types. "Foliose" lichens look like leaves. "Crustose" lichens look flat and crusty. "Frutose" lichens stand upright or hang down. Frutose lichens also tend to have bright colors. British Soldiers is a frutose lichen.

British Soldiers, like all lichens, grows very slowly. It grows one to two millimeters each year.

British Soldiers can usually be found growing on decaying wood, soil, mossy logs, tree bases, and stumps. Lichens help break down old wood and put nutrients back into the soil where they can be used by plants. Lichens also take nitrogen from the air and put into the soil so plants can use it. Plants cannot do this themselves.

Marie T. Trest, Wisconsin State Herbarium

Frances Cardillo

British Soldiers can start making spores when they are about four years old. Pieces of lichens that get broken off can also start making a new lichen, if they are in the right environment.

Lichens provide shelter and cover for small animals, like Water Bears, insects, and spiders. Some animals that eat lichens include: White-tailed Deer, Wild Turkey, Meadow Vole, springtails, oribatid mites, and some terrestrial snails.

Michigan State University

Copyright, CCFB/photo by Kent Loeffler

Some scientists think Cladonia cristatella is a parasite of Trebouxia erici, using up its food but not giving much back to the algae. Since Trebouxia erici can live on its own, or with another lichen, it doesn't really need Cladoina cristatella. Other scientists believe the two organisms have a mutualistic relationship, since they both seem to do better with each other, rather than on their own.

Relationships in Nature:

Animals Using as Food Source
Animals Using as Shelter
Associations With Plants

White-tailed Deer

Water Bear

Wild Turkey

Soil Mite

Meadow Vole

Snow Flea

Snow Flea

Ring-legged Earwig

Soil Mite

Rabid Wolf Spider

Eastern Forest Snail

Red-backed Salamander

Spring Peeper

Pennsylvania Firefly

Common Black Ground Beetle

Black Carpenter Ant

Eastern Bloodsucking Conenose

Field Cricket

Five-lined Skink


Garden Centipede

North American Millipede

Relationship to Humans:

Lichens are an indicator of good air quality. Since they don't do well in polluted air, you know air is healthy when you see lots of lichens. People have used lichens to make medicines, dyes, and perfumes. Some also use them as decorations.


Fungi / Plant
Cladonia cristatella


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