Practical ecological knowledge for the temperate reader.

Letharia vulpina - Wolf lichen

Family: Parmeliaceae [NatureServe]


"The phylospecies concept allows characterization of cryptic species among lichenized fungi, which cannot or hardly be recognized on the basis of morphological characters; examples are the sulfur-yellow wolf lichens (genus Letharia) in western North America. Based on morphological criteria this genus was assumed to consist of one sympatric species pair, comprising the sexually reproducing L. columbiana and the vegetatively dispersing L. vulpina. With molecular techniques L. columbiana was resolved into five species: the vegetatively dispersing L. lupina and the sexually reproducing L. barbata, L. lucida, L. gracilis and L. rugosa (Kroken and Taylor 2001)." [Esser PR]

Habitat & Range

"World distribution: western North America and western Eurasia" [Lichenportal-1] ""This species is widespread in western North America; common throughout the Pacific Northwest but most conspicuous east of the Cascades" (McCune and Geiser 1997)." [NatureServe]

"Letharia vulpina occurs throughout the Pacific Northwest. It is often abundant on exposed branches that have lost their bark. In old, moist forests, it is typically found in drier areas.[2] This species has an intermediate air pollution sensitivity.[2] In the Rocky Mountains, Letharia species are found in ponderosa forests at the prairie-forest boundary at relatively low elevations though medium and high elevation Douglas fir and lodgepole pine forests." [inaturalist]

"Sonoran distribution: southern California and Baja California at 800-2000 m, often on north-facing slopes or in shaded areas, but also sometimes in chaparral; rare, eastern Arizona at 2950 m. Notes: Based on morphology and distribution, material of L. vulpina s. lato from the Sonoran region appears to include both L. vulpina s. str. (especially near the coast, and similar to European material) and the L. “lupina” (especially away from the coast, and yellower, more highly branched, and with larger and more diffuse soralia) morph of Kroken and Taylor (2001). However, in my opinion the differences between these two morphs, as given by these authors and by Goward (1999), are not very consistent and are difficult to apply to the often poorly developed specimens found in southern California, where the distributions of the two morphs overlap. A few specimens from the San Gabriel Wilderness are much more robust and have sparsely divided main branches 2-3 (-7) mm wide with narrow branches mostly in the upper parts; in these morphs the narrow branches are either divaricately branched in scattered dense clusters, or more parallel and sinuous and concentrated towards the tips with extensive coverage by isidioid soredia concentrated on these smaller branches. These and other populations from arid areas may represent additional species (Barreno, pers. comm.)." [Lichenportal-1]

Status: Native

Syn: Evernia vulpina (L.) Ach.


Other Use

Medicinal Uses


"In 1908 the ethnographer Erland Nordenskiold (1877 – 1932) compiled a manual for ethnographical fieldwork, in which he also discussed traditional knowledge of plants, and mentioned the word “ethnobotany” for the first time in Swedish. The manual was intended for Swedes, especially Christian missionaries, who lived and worked in distant lands. Nordenskiold himself developed a collaboration with pharmacologist Carl Gustaf Santesson (1862 – 1939) for the analysis of poisons used by South American Indians. Santesson himself also collaborated with other ethnologists, and in 1939 he published an important analysis of the lichen Letharia vulpina, gathered from a Saami hunter who used it as a poison for killing wolves, an early study of ethnopharmacology (Holmstedt 1995)." [Svanberg et al.]


"Higuchi et al. (1993) screened as many as 46 cultured lichen species for tyrosinase inhibitory activity and some of them (Hypogymnia physodes, Letharia vulpina and Cetraria juniperina) showed strong activity." [Rankovic LSM]

Enzyme Inhibitory Activity. - Letharia vulpina (1.) Hue (tyrosinase) (Higuchi et al. 1992). [Siegfried ILS]


"A further family of aromatic compounds produced by lichens is derived from shikimic acid via phenylalanine and is exemplified by vulpinic acid (7.55), which was isolated from Letharia vulpina. Vulpinic acid has been synthesized by the lead tetra-acetate oxidation of polyporic acid." [ChemofFungi]

"A solution of KOH and K 2C 0 3 was used to locate norstictic acid in the hymenium of Letharia californica (Lev.) Hue (W. L. Culberson, 1969a)." [Harborne MPB]

"Stephenson and Rundel (1979) did not find any correlation between atranorin levels and light intensity for Letharia vulpina." [Ross PIP]

Journals of Interest


Letharia Sp.

"There were historically two species of Letharia: L. vulpina and L. columbiana.[3]" [Wiki-1]

"Western North America is the global centre of diversity for Letharia, a distinctive and cryptically diverse genus of lichenized fungi belonging to the Parmeliaceae. The genus is characterized by a shrubby, fruticose habit and presence of vulpinic acid. Previous studies using multiple fungal nuclear loci revealed the existence of two distinct species-level lineages within the traditional concept of L. vulpina and four such lineages within L. columbiana." [Altermann et al.]

"Similarly, an extensive survey of the lichenized ascomycete Letharia ‘gracilis’ and L. ‘lupina’ in North America by using a 12-locus MLST scheme showed that whereas L. ‘lupina’ reproduces principally by asexual structures (soredia) the genetic structure of this species is as recombined in nature as the sexually reproducing L. ‘gracilis’ sister taxon (Kroken & Taylor, 2001)." [Gadd FE]

Local Sp.


"Antibiotic properties of acetone and methanol extracts from 34 North American lichens were screened against four pathogenic bacteria by Shrestha et al. (2014). The microwell dilution method was used to determine the minimum inhibitory concentration. Most of the lichen extracts demonstrated inhibitory effects against Staphylococcus aureus, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and methicillin-resistant S. aureus with MIC values ranging from 3.9 to 500 μg/ml. In addition, extracts from three species, Letharia columbiana, Letharia vulpina, and Vulpicida canadensis (MIC=125–500 μg/ml), were also effective against Escherichia coli. Generally, acetone extractions were found to be more effective than methanol extractions." [Rankovic LSM]


Letharia columbiana - Brown-eyed wolf

"The most common traditional use of wolf lichens is as a source of a bright yellow dye. Native Americans in California have used wolf lichens as an arrow poison, sometimes mixed with snake venom. They have also been used as an external medicine for sores, or even as an internal medicine for stomach disorders. (Brodo et al.). Lentaria columbiana is widespread throughout the Pacific Northwest but avoids the immediate coast. It is common in subalpine forests, high plateaus and ridges to timberline, occasional in low elevation forests. (McCune & Geiser). Distribution BC, WA, OR, ID, AB, CA, MT, Mexico. (Goward)." [E-flora]

"Fruiting body: mostly 2-7(15)cm across, richly branched, branches solid or with loosely filled center, irregular in cross-section, often bearing brown cups; brilliant fluorescent yellow green or chartreuse, interior white; surface wrinkled, (McCune), almost always fertile, with dark brown cups up to 1.5cm across, fringed with spiny branchlets, black pycnidia often abundant, soredia and isidia absent, (Brodo)" [E-flora]

"Habitat / Range bark or wood, rarely rock, (McCune), associated with the green alga Trebouxia (Brodo), especially on Larix lyallii, Pinus albicaulis, and Abies lasiocarpa, (Vitt)" [E-flora]

"Similar Species Letharia vulpina (wolf lichen or timber wolf), the other species in this genus, [also common in the Pacific Northwest], has branches that are granular with soredia, and the cups are rare. It is also found in northern Europe, where it was used to poison foxes and wolves (the basis for its scientific and common name), (Brodo)." [E-flora]

Status: Native [E-flora]

Synonyms: Letharia californica (Lev.) Hue [E-flora]


Page last modified on Monday, January 3, 2022 9:02 PM