LAVA BEDS — It took a while for Steve Sheehy to take a liking to lichens.

Sheehy, 63, who was born and raised in Klamath Falls, made a career laying floors, including nearly 32 with Lucas & Howard Furniture, seemed an unlikely lichenologist.

It was in 2008, during a day spent with scientists at a bio-blitz at Crater Lake National Park, that he began his fascination with the easily overlooked, complex organisms.

“That’s when I really got into lichens,” he says.

That fascination led to reading and studying everything he could find about lichens. That’s why, in April 2012, while scouring a near-vertical lava trench in Lava Beds National Monument, he was flummoxed when he spotted a spotted lichen unlike any he’d ever seen.

Neither, it turns out, had anyone else.

“I was going through my books and keys and I couldn’t find anything quite like it,” Sheehy says of discovering what’s since been named Umbilicaria nodulospora. “That was really exciting.”

Unreported species

Sheehy didn’t immediately know the light-gray colored lichen he found within a semi-sheltered crevasse was an unreported species. With the help of Dr. Bruce McCune, an Oregon State University botanist, a genetic analysis determined Sheehy’s discovery is a species separate from previously described lichens. It’s distinct because of nodules protruding from the edges of its oblong spores. The closest known U. nodulospora relatives are found in South America’s Andes mountains.

Since being found at Lava Beds, other U. nodulospora have been found in similar vertical, geologically recent basalt lava flows in the Christmas Valley-Fort Rock area in Oregon’s Lake County and areas of the Modoc National Forest south of Lava Beds.

“That’s pretty exciting stuff. It rocked the lichen world,” says Lava Beds Supt. Mike Reynolds, who credits Sheehy as being a “citizen scientist.”

While the discovery is impressive, Reynolds is equally delighted by Sheehy’s other findings. When Sheehy started surveying Lava Beds lichens in 2012, only 19 lichen species in three genera were on the park’s published species list. Now, 119 species in 49 genera have been cataloged.

“We certainly support his work,” Reynolds says. “He’s an important volunteer. He routinely takes us (park staff) out and teaches us.”

Sheehy knows there are more lichen species to be found because the park covers 73 square miles “and I have covered my 2 square miles or so. There’s a lot more to do.”

Most of the year, except the heat of summer, he visits the Lava Beds two or three times a month. Although lichenologists have intensely studied lichen west of the Cascades, he says relatively few investigations have been done on the east side. Along with discovering U. nodulospora, he’s helped verify species found elsewhere that had not been found at Lava Beds or other locations. Because of his now trained eye, he even eyeballed a previously unverified lichen species during a class on bumblebees.

Air quality monitors

“I spend a lot of time playing with lichens. One rock can have 15 to 20 species. You just wander around and there’s no end to what you can find,” says Sheehy, who has given programs at Lava Beds, Chiloquin and for the Klamath Basin Chapter of the Native Plant Society.

“Lichens are so underappreciated,” he believes, noting various lichens are being studied for use in sunscreens and cosmetics and as possible cures for cancer. Lichen are also air quality indicators “because they absorb everything that’s in the air.”

Sheehy, likewise, absorbs everything he can about lichens.

“I’ve got stacks and stacks of lichen (samples) to look at,” he says, noting he has more than 900 species at his home and another 200-plus at Lava Beds.

The possibilities are seemingly endless, with more than 27,000 species worldwide, including his own U. nodulospora.

“There’s still a lot of park to look at,” Sheehy says of potential discoveries at Lava Beds. “My ambition is to be able to walk out and put a name to every lichen I see. And, that,” he adds with smile, “will never happen.”