Field of Science

Jurassic Park Mosses


Imagine the world millions of years ago. Covered in plants and dominated by dinosaurs. 

Mosses were a critical component of the lush green background, but you wouldn't know it from the fossil record. Unfortunately there are not many moss fossils. They break down more rapidly than other woody plants and thus there is less fossil evidence of their history on the planet. 




Calymperites burmensis sp. nov. 
fossilized in amber. Heinrichs et al. 2014

Finding new moss fossils, especially well preserved ones, represents an important scientific discovery. Recently a new species of moss was described from a plant found in amber (fossilized tree resin). Originally this piece of amber was intended to be a necklace, but now lives at the American Museum of Natural History in New York where it can be studied by scientific researchers and potentially viewed by the public. 

The closest living moss relatives to this fossil moss were determined based on its physical features. Based on this data, the species is in the moss family Calymperaceae. No DNA was mined out of this preserved specimen. Unfortunately recovering DNA from amber fossils only happens in the science fiction of Jurassic Park.

Fossils, like this one, are an important addition to our scientific knowledge. They help us to determine the timing of moss evolution and to date evolutionary trees. This gives us a better understanding of when particular groups evolved and which groups were present during the prehistoric times of the dinosaurs.





For more on ancient plants, check out this episode of Plants Are Cool Too!

May 2015 Desktop Calendar

Some red Sphagnum mosses mixed in with a succulent vascular plant from my travels to Chile this past winter. Oh to be walking barefoot on the cool wet peat. It would be a great contrast to the warm weather we have been having here in Davis already. Full-blown summer is just around the corner!



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Debunking Moss Graffiti

Have you heard of moss graffiti or moss art? Outdoor walls and surfaces covered in mosses shaped into words or images (Google Images). Many articles on the internet promote mosses as an easy way to create living/green art. As a scientist who regularly grows mosses in the laboratory I have a number of issues with this art form, but let's start with methods. 


 There are two methods described online for making this type of live wall art. 

#1 The milkshake technique - Collect a few clumps of mosses. Grind up the mosses in a blender with buttermilk, beer, or some other liquid to help the moss stick to the wall. Then paint the mossy solution onto the wall. Water the mossy area to help the mosses to grow. 

#2  Collect patches of mosses. Trim and arrange them into the desired design. Then paste/attach them onto the wall.

The problem with many of the descriptions online is that method #1 is outlined and then art made using method #2 is displayed as the result! There are many before photos and videos for the milkshake technique (herehere, and here), but hardly any after photos. This is the best one I could findWhy do very few people show the results of the milkshake technique (method #1)? Well, mosses are not fast growing plants. After painting mosses onto a wall they need to be kept constantly moist and will take a long time to grow. I think that many people try out this technique and few plants grow. 

Why does this technique seem to fail so often? In theory this technique could work. All moss cells are totipotent, meaning each individual moss cell can regrow an entire moss plant. However, moss species are often very specific to where they grow. Some species grow only on soil, others on trees, and still others on rocks. The success rate will probably be low if mosses that usually grow on soil or wood are painted onto concrete or brick walls. Another reason they may not grow is that the surface is not moist enough.

The vast majority of the moss graffiti images online were not made using the milkshake technique. The lush mats of mosses in the shape of a creature or phrase with crisp edges were instead made from fully grown mosses. Very few sites describe the process wherein they harvest mosses, cut them into those amazing shapes, and then use a paste to attach them to the wall. Most mosses used for horticultural or ornamental purposes are collected from the wild. The mosses used in these pieces may be able to stay alive or continue to grow for a while, but I wonder how long they can stay alive without constant watering and maintenance. My guess would be that they can stay alive for a bit, but in the end they would eventually die. 

These urban displays of mosses are beautiful, but I think that it is important to consider the cost of this beauty. Where was the beautiful moss taken from to put onto this wall?

I think it is a fun activity to move mosses around the yard on a local scale to landscape with mosses. I am also in favor of purchasing mosses from a grower that produces them sustainably or rescues them from development sites, like Moss'in Annie. However, I imagine that many of the mosses used for these art/graffiti installations were not sourced in an eco-friendly way, but were instead pillaged from the wild. The strip mining collection of mosses is a big business with much of the collection in the United States happening in the Pacific Northwest and in the Appalachian Mountains. Personally and professionally I am opposed to this type of collecting. Many of these mosses are long lived plants that are growing in old climax communities. They could easily be 10 to 50 years old and it could take at least that long for them to regrow. Wild collection on a massive scale is just not sustainable industry. 

Consider a hunt for urban mosses that are hiding in plain sight. Any moist place is a great location for mosses to grow. In the cracks or at the edges of the sidewalk. Beneath a dripping window air conditioner. Around the base of a tree trunk. Mosses are writing their own graffiti and they are adding a bit of green to the man-made world that surrounds us.  

An alternative to adding mosses to walls is to remove some of the mosses that are already present to create a design. I thought this one was a pretty amazing display of that technique.

April 2015 Desktop Calendar

Another moss from my adventures in Chile. 
I think the peltate/umbrella shape of this moss is really great!


1 - Single click on the image to open it up in a new window. (If you use the image directly from the blog post you will lose a lot of resolution.)

2 - Right-click (or ctrl-click) on the image, and chose the option that says, "Set as Desktop Background" or "Use Image as Desktop Picture" or "Save Image As...". The wording may vary. (If saving the image to your computer is the only option, then locate it on your computer and choose the "Set as Desktop Background" or "Use Image as Desktop Picture" option from there.)

3 - If the image does not fit your desktop neatly, you may have to adjust the image (Mac: System Preferences - Desktop and Screen Saver - Desktop; Windows: Control Panel - Display - Desktop) and choose "Fill screen" as the display mode of your background image.

March 2015 Desktop Calendar

Some mosses in the genus Bryum from my travels to Chile. Happy March! 


1 - Single click on the image to open it up in a new window. (If you use the image directly from the blog post you will lose a lot of resolution.)

2 - Right-click (or ctrl-click) on the image, and chose the option that says, "Set as Desktop Background" or "Use Image as Desktop Picture" or "Save Image As...". The wording may vary. (If saving the image to your computer is the only option, then locate it on your computer and choose the "Set as Desktop Background" or "Use Image as Desktop Picture" option from there.)

3 - If the image does not fit your desktop neatly, you may have to adjust the image (Mac: System Preferences - Desktop and Screen Saver - Desktop; Windows: Control Panel - Display - Desktop) and choose "Fill screen" as the display mode of your background image.

More Mossy Magnification


Everyone knows about my love of magnification, including my family. This Christmas I got this great lens for my cell phone camera from my sister. Last year I wrote about a similar magnification lens that sticks to your cell phone camera allowing you to take magnified photos. It worked pretty well, but I like this one even better. The rubber band holds the lens snugly in place and it is large enough that I wasn't afraid of it falling of or loosing it. I also like that it loads up on a little card that can be easily tucked in a wallet or pocket. It makes the whole setup pretty handy. 












You can purchase your own at this website. 












Overall I think that the lens takes good photos. The images are sharp and the focal area is good. The only issue is one I have mentioned before with lenses mounted directly onto a cell phone. Without a mount/stand it is hard to hold the phone steady enough to keep the plants in focus. For these photos I balanced one corner of the phone on the ground to hold it steady, which worked pretty well. 






February 2015 Desktop Calendar

Happy belated February! This past month was a whirlwind of science and adventures for me. I spent the past month in Chile attending the International Association of Bryologists conference and then I went backpacking for a few weeks. I have hundreds of bryophyte photos and many fun stories to tell. As soon as I get settled in my plan is to share many of them with you all here. 

So stay tuned for tales from Chile. In the meantime enjoy the Tetraplodon pictured below. We saw it while walking around in a Sphagnum-dominated peat bog barefoot! 



1 - Single click on the image to open it up in a new window. (If you use the image directly from the blog post you will lose a lot of resolution.)

2 - Right-click (or ctrl-click) on the image, and chose the option that says, "Set as Desktop Background" or "Use Image as Desktop Picture" or "Save Image As...". The wording may vary. (If saving the image to your computer is the only option, then locate it on your computer and choose the "Set as Desktop Background" or "Use Image as Desktop Picture" option from there.)

3 - If the image does not fit your desktop neatly, you may have to adjust the image (Mac: System Preferences - Desktop and Screen Saver - Desktop; Windows: Control Panel - Display - Desktop) and choose "Fill screen" as the display mode of your background image.

January 2015 Desktop Calendar

I spent the holidays visiting family in Cincinnati, Ohio and got some nice shots of mosses peaking through the cracks in my mom's back patio. I took two photos that I thought would make a nice January calendar. 

The moss shown in the photos doesn't look like Bryum argenteum (the silver sidewalk moss). I saw some of that nearby and the leaves were smaller and more closely appressed at the top. No moss books with me here, so a final identification may have to wait until I am back in California. 

 Happy New Year!




1 - Single click on the image to open it up in a new window. (If you use the image directly from the blog post you will lose a lot of resolution.)

2 - Right-click (or ctrl-click) on the image, and chose the option that says, "Set as Desktop Background" or "Use Image as Desktop Picture" or "Save Image As...". The wording may vary. (If saving the image to your computer is the only option, then locate it on your computer and choose the "Set as Desktop Background" or "Use Image as Desktop Picture" option from there.)

3 - If the image does not fit your desktop neatly, you may have to adjust the image (Mac: System Preferences - Desktop and Screen Saver - Desktop; Windows: Control Panel - Display - Desktop) and choose "Fill screen" as the display mode of your background image.

My New Magnets

There are two other issues that I see with
the scientific name.
Can anyone else find them?
Add your thoughts in the comments section. 
This was part of my birthday present from a friend who lives in Portland. They are magnets made from clay to resemble moss- covered stones. Right now they are still attached to the paper hanging on my refrigerator. I just can't bring myself to separate them from their great background packaging. 

The only improvement they could use for scientific accuracy is the name. For plants, a species name is only a binomial, whereas trinomials are regularly used for animals. If a level below species is needed for plants, an abbreviation before the last name is used. For plants, the levels below species include: var. = variety, subsp. = subspecies, and f. = form. 

Botanists vary widely on their use of the levels below species. Some never use them and even think that no one should use them. My undergraduate mentor's comment about levels below species was that they were for scientists who didn't have the gumption to call them different species. (In my memory this phrase is said with a south Boston accent and the word in italics was significantly more colorful.Other scientists use levels below species regularly. The ranks below species can be used to describe populations within a species that are geographically or ecologically distinct or a plants with a distinct morphology.

Personally I lean away from ranks below species, except when they are viewed as an evolutionary hypothesis in need of testing with additional data. Then I see them as a interesting question just waiting to be answered. 

For a thorough analysis of these ranks below species, check out this publication. 

December 2014 Desktop Calendar

Apologies for the blogging silence. October and November were busy months and finding time to blog has been a challenge. I was out in downtown Davis today and spotted this moss growing in between the cobblestones. It is probably Bryum argenteum, the silver sidewalk moss. It doesn't look very silver in this photo, but I am not sure what conditions bring out the shiny hues. 

We have had a lot of rain over the past two weeks in the central valley and the mosses are bursting forth in full force on many exposed soil areas in town. Hopefully we will have a rainy winter to help combat the drought we have been experiencing in California. I know that the mosses would enjoy more rain too!


1 - Single click on the image to open it up in a new window. (If you use the image directly from the blog post you will lose a lot of resolution.)

2 - Right-click (or ctrl-click) on the image, and chose the option that says, "Set as Desktop Background" or "Use Image as Desktop Picture" or "Save Image As...". The wording may vary. (If saving the image to your computer is the only option, then locate it on your computer and choose the "Set as Desktop Background" or "Use Image as Desktop Picture" option from there.)

3 - If the image does not fit your desktop neatly, you may have to adjust the image (Mac: System Preferences - Desktop and Screen Saver - Desktop; Windows: Control Panel - Display - Desktop) and choose "Fill screen" as the display mode of your background image.

October 2014 Desktop Calendar

Another moss from my August vacation to New York and Connecticut. This one is Atrichum crispum. Unlike other Atrichum species, this one does not have lamellae running down the midrib. It has relatively large translucent leaves and teeth on the edges. The leaf blade is smooth but slightly folded into a V when wet. It is a bit challenging to tell this one from a Miniaceae without capsules. The capsules of Atrichum release spores via a salt-shaker mechanism, whereas the Miniaceae have peristome teeth that move in response to changes in humidity.

Fortunately I had my handy Common Mosses of the Northeast and Appalachians field guide with me to help with this identification.  


1 - Single click on the image to open it up in a new window. (If you use the image directly from the blog post you will lose a lot of resolution.)

2 - Right-click (or ctrl-click) on the image, and chose the option that says, "Set as Desktop Background" or "Use Image as Desktop Picture" or "Save Image As...". The wording may vary. (If saving the image to your computer is the only option, then locate it on your computer and choose the "Set as Desktop Background" or "Use Image as Desktop Picture" option from there.)

3 - If the image does not fit your desktop neatly, you may have to adjust the image (Mac: System Preferences - Desktop and Screen Saver - Desktop; Windows: Control Panel - Display - Desktop) and choose "Fill screen" as the display mode of your background image.

More than just Mosses


My life as postdoctoral research fellow at the University of California, Davis is more than just mosses. I am also an active member of my postdoctoral union. The union has a number of roles such as giving postdocs a voice to maintain good pay rates and healthcare benefits, facilitating professional development with panel discussions and computer programming workshops, and creating a social network through mixers and BBQs

Yes, it does cost some money to be a union member. For me it is about $30 in fair-share fees and $10 in membership dues per month, but I think my contributions are going to good use. Besides helping UC postdocs to get a pay raise this year, I am happy to say that my contributions have helped to support the graduate students at the University of Connecticut to unionize. I earned my PhD in 2011 studying bryophytes in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department at UConn and thus I am particularly invested in the university maintaining a strong graduate program that continues to produce amazing science and great researchers.

Having competitive wages relative to the cost of living and good benefits were some of the factors that drew me to the University of Connecticut for graduate school. I was also considering and accepted at UC Berkeley, but at the time they were paying less than UConn and had a much higher cost of living.

I hope that the University of Connecticut will move forward with contract negotiations with the graduate students. From the latest updates, it sounds like the process is being delayed and dragging on longer than necessary. The graduate students and the university have better places to spend their time and resources than on prolonged negotiations. 

I hope that the University of Connecticut will value and compensate graduate students fairly for all the significant contributions that they make to teaching and research at the university. Graduate students teach many of the laboratory and discussion sections, as well as designing and carrying out research that results in top notch publications. Just check out graduate student Lily Lewis's publication on bird dispersal of bryophyte diaspores or Manette Sandor's research studying the influence of remnant trees on tropical forest regeneration. Lily and Manette are both great scientists and their continued success is as graduate students is dependent upon the university agreeing to a contract that establishes standards for fair pay and benefits. 

Add your support to the graduate students at the University of Connecticut by signing this petition. Click here for a link to the petition. 

You can also follow the UConn grad student union @GEUUAW or through their website http://www.uconngradunion.org/.