Thanks to the happy hunting of a high school dropout, the north side of Santa Rosa Island-the rugged, chubby, dolphin-shaped Channel Island wedged between the islands of Santa Cruz and San Miguel-has provided the first flora named after our nation’s 44th president, Barack Obama. Properly known as the Caloplaca obamae, the rust-orange flecked lichen was discovered and collected during the final weeks of Obama’s successful presidential campaign last fall, by UC Riverside Herbarium lichen taxonomist Kerry Knudsen. It’s didn’t become an official newly discovered species until earlier this spring, however. An ardent Obama supporter, the 58-year-old Knudsen pledged to name his lichen after the senator from Illinois should he win the White House.
“We were following the news every night out there [on Santa Rosa] and I said I’d name it after him if he won,” explained Knudsen earlier this week. So when nearly 64 million Americans voted for Obama on November 6, 2008, the deal was sealed. The unlikely lichenist even put the finishing touches on his official paper explaining the discovery on Inauguration Day, while watching Obama get sworn in.
But this isn’t just a tale of a never-before-identified mixture of fungi and algae being used to immortalize a president. A former construction worker who didn’t finish high school, Knudsen serendipitously entered the not-so-big world of lichen hunting about 10 years ago, after a blood clotting condition forced him into retirement. When doctors urged him not to pursue a degree in botany-plants had long been a passion of Knudsen’s, but his doctors feared that too much time sitting down in a classroom would be bad news for his genetic condition-the father of two went into a bit of a funk.
“Basically, I got into this stuff out of boredom,” he said. “One day I got up from the couch, told my daughters, ‘I’m going behind the house and whatever I find I am going to study.’ And that is where I found my first lichen.” In the time since, Knudsen has followed his curiosity straight into a gig at the UC Riverside Herbarium and international renown as a lichen expert. He has published more than 100 peer-reviewed papers and discovered about 30 other lichens besides Obamae, including another Santa Rosa-specific finding just a few months ago.
Knudsen first found the presidential lichen almost two years ago in an old cattle pen near the Santa Rosa ranch house, as part of his ongoing collaboration with the Channel Islands National Park to compile a complete inventory of all the lichen species present on the islands. At first, he wasn’t sure the mixed orange and green, 50-cent-piece to silver-dollar sized patches of lichen he came upon in the pen represented a heretofore undiscovered type. He confirmed that it was indeed. He figures that Obamae was nearly knocked out by heavy cattle grazing throughout the 20th century and as a result was all but extinct when other lichen hunters visited Santa Rosa Island a few decades ago. The rest is history, though it remains to be seen if President Obama knows about his namesake lichen. “He certainly hasn’t called me about it or anything,” Knudsen laughed.