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September 21, 2022

AHA’s Environmental Science Class Saves Mini-ecosystem

At first glance, it looked like something that should be scrubbed from the handrail on the walkway to the school gym, but Patricia Prucnel and her students saw much more. The Academy of the Holy Angels’ environmental science teacher and her class recognized the greenish gray growth as a form of lichen known as British Soldier.

They asked Robert Shanney, head of the maintenance staff, to save the lichen by removing pieces of the wooden handrail and moving the boards to the safety of the school garden.

This month, Prucnel brought her class to the garden for a closer look at the curious mini-ecosystem that includes “redheads,” tiny crimson flecks. Lichen, Prucnel explained, is a symbiotic combination of algae and fungus. Each patch is an important keystone element in the environment. Lichen cleans the air, and is sensitive to changes in air temperatures and shifts in climate. Scientists study lichen samples to assess air pollutants in a given location. Lichen also harbors tiny insects, and is nutritious for birds and caribou.

Over time, lichen breaks down its host, including tree bark and stone. Prucnel surprised her class when she explained that soil is composed of rock that has been broken down by lichen.

The class also viewed “For the Love of Lichen,” a brief video about a scientist who samples, catalogues, and photographs thousands of lichen samples. This clip highlights the diverse types of lichen. According to Prucnel, lichen appears in every color.

AHA’s environmental science students include Areni Chaglasian, Ailish Coyle, Katherine Gallagher, Grace Koustas, Camila Latinsky-Ortiz, Elise Pisciotti, Liana Powley, Samantha Serrano, Amanda Tomasella, and Lauren Tomasella.

Founded by the School Sisters of Notre Dame in 1879, the Academy of the Holy Angels is the oldest private girls’ school in Bergen County.