The biology behind lichenometric dating curves.
Lichenometry is used to date late-Holocene terminal moraines that record glacier fluctuations. Traditionally, it relies upon dating curves that relate diameters of the largest lichens in a population to surface ages. Although widely used, the technique remains controversial, in part because lichen biology is poorly understood. We use size-frequency distributions of lichens growing on well-dated surfaces to fit demographic models for Rhizocarpon geographicum and Pseudophebe pubescens, two species commonly used for lichenometry. We show that both species suffer from substantial mortality of 2-3% per year, and grow slowest when young-trends that explain a long-standing contradiction between the literatures of lichenometry and lichen biology. Lichenometrists interpret the shape of typical dating curves to indicate a period of rapid juvenile "great growth," contrary to the growth patterns expected by biologists. With a simulation, we show how the "great growth" pattern can be explained by mortality alone, which ensures that early colonists are rarely found on the oldest surfaces. The consistency of our model predictions with biological theory and observations, and with dozens of lichenometric calibration curves from around the world, suggests opportunities to assess quantitatively the accuracy and utility of this common dating technique.