Field of Science

Learning mosses at SOBEFREE

At the end of March I attended the SOBEFREE foray with amateur and professional bryologists from across California and beyond. I highly recommend attending this foray, especially if you live in California. This year we went to some really great locations in Santa Cruz county and I learned tons of California mosses. The days are spent hiking and collecting mosses with our permits in hand. Then the evenings we all gather around our microscopes to look at the plants and to identify them to species.

With my new skills in hand, I decided to take a look at some of my older photos to see if I could make any identifications. I looked at my desktop calendar from January and now recognize the species. It is Dendroalsia abietina! It is a super common moss on trees in California. When dry the leaves curl downward and may remind you of a clenched fist. When wet, the fronds are splayed out and form an array of small shelves across the trunk. Peek beneath the fronds to find the short sporophytes hiding on the undersides in clusters. I love learning the names of new plants, especially mosses. I often think of it as making new botanical friends.

Being out in the field and looking at plants was such a great change of pace from being in the laboratory. I am hoping that I can make it to the Schofield Bryophyte and Lichen foray up in British Columbia this fall. I don't think the time and location have been announced yet. As soon as I hear I will share it here on the blog.

It would also be nice to stop by the University of British Columbia while up in Canada to meet the chemists I am collaborating with. I have only interacted with them through email and skype. It would be great to see them and their lab setup in person. 

Keep your eyes peeled for the announcement about SOBEFREE 2015, which will be held in March somewhere in California. I will most certainly be there next year! 

April 2014 Desktop Calendar

This moss and lichen combo is from my trip last month to Yosemite National Park. I only did photographic collecting and I am still improving my California identifications, thus I was planning to post this calendar without species identifications. But after this weekend's SOBEFREE (a spring outing in California for professionals to head out into the field to observe, collect, and identify bryophytes) I am ready to take a guess.

From the photo this bryophyte appears to be Orthodicranum tauricum. This species may remind you a bit of Dicranum. They both have narrow thin leaves and upright stems. Unlike Dicranum, the leaves of Orthodicranum point in many directions. In Dicranum the leaves are falcate (meaning sickle-shaped) and secund (all pointed in the same direction). It gives Dicranum one of it's common names, broom moss. It looks like the floor has just been swept using a stem and the leaves are now curved and pointing all in the same direction. But I wouldn't recommend it for floor sweeping. It would take way to long to get the chores done.

Anyone have any thoughts on an identification for the lichen? Lichenological books are no longer at my fingertips in my lab here in California, but it would be great to learn the genus or species if someone is familiar.

April Desktop Calendar
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 as Desktop Picture". The wording may vary.

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.

Zombie Mosses Rise Again

Rising from the depths, mosses that have been frozen in suspended animation for hundreds of year grow again! You may recall that zombie mosses were in the news last summer, well they are back. In this study, published last week in Current Biology, mosses were dug up from an island in Antarctica and regenerated new plants in the laboratory. Digging up and growing mosses is typically not a news-worthy activity. The amazing thing about these mosses is that they had been buried in the permanently frozen ground (permafrost) for the last 1,500 years, since Roman times.

This story was covered by a variety of news sources. By far my favorite was Jennifer Frazier's coverage for National Geographic. She did a great job of discussing the science and soliciting comments from scientists doing similar research. For an audio clip of the story, I enjoyed the 60 second science podcast from Sophie Bushwick at Scientific American. 

Let's put this study in perspective. Mosses can survive freezing. This is a known ability. Mosses are buried beneath the snow during winter in many places across the globe and each spring they thaw and resume growth. This study pushes our knowledge of this phenomenon to the extreme and leads to some questions. 

How long can mosses survive frozen and recover? In the National Geographic article, Dr. LaFarge mentions that they have an upcoming study to test whether 50,000 year old mosses can resume growth. There will most definitely be more to come on this topic.

What are the compounds inside moss cells that act as antifreeze, helping them to prepare for and survive freezing? I know that I have read a paper on this somewhere. My memory says that they are called LEA proteins, but I can't recall which paper discussed them relating to mosses. 

Can all species of mosses survive this long? Thinking ecologically, my guess would be that mosses from the tropics would not be able to survive frozen for even a single winter, let alone hundreds of years. Whereas, thinking systematically, the mosses that grew from 400 years ago (LaFarge et al 2013) were from four different moss families (Aulacomniaceae, Encalyptaceae, Ditrichaceae, Pottiaceae) and the one in this study is from a different family, the Dicranaceae. From this small sample it looks like surviving frozen for extended periods of time is a feature of many groups of mosses. 
Figure S1 from Roads et al. 2014.Chorisodontium aciphyllum moss bank sampled in this study; 
(a) map of Signy Island indicating the study location; (b) coring the moss bank;
(c) surface section of clearly separable gametophytes;

(d) fresh-collected section of core from within the permafrost layer.

This supplemental figure from the paper gives you a peek into some of the research methods. The upper right shows the researchers collecting mosses in the field. The lower right is a freshly collected core of mosses. It is amazing how compact the sample appears. It looks like a solid metal rod, but really the bottom left is a pulled-apart version of the bottom right. 

I am looking forward to the next tale of zombie mosses from LaFarge and colleagues. 
Can 50,000 year old mosses grow again? 

March 2014 Desktop Calendar at Yosemite

I took some time off this week and went camping in Yosemite National Park. It was my first time there and it was an amazing visit. Granite mountains, boulders covered in mosses, and tough trees clinging to cliffs. Yes, I mentioned rocks three times in the same sentence. Geology is everywhere in Yosemite! If I had grown up in the west, I am convinced I would have been a geologist rather than a botanist. The plant to rock ratio is skewed completely in the opposite direction from the eastern deciduous forests that I grew up surrounded by in the midwest. 

The geology of the Sierra Nevada Mountains is an interesting tale. The vast majority of the exposed rock is granite and was formed millions of years ago deep underground from magma. As time passed erosion of the layers above, glaciation, and uplifting exposed the upper layers of these rocks. Giving us literally translated from Spanish the "snowy mountain range" of the Sierra Nevada. 

Unfortunately for the water situation in California there was not much snow in the mountains when we visited last weekend. Just the tops retained a light dusting of snow and the vast majority of the trails were open and dry. If you are in the area I would highly recommend a visit to this lovely park. Just beware, Yosemite is one of the most highly visited national parks in the United States and I hear that the summer crowds can be intense, especially in the valley. 

Overall it was a much needed vacation and a spectacular piece of nature to visit. I was also very impressed by the accessibility of many of the waterfalls and nature trails. A number of them are paved with flat to mild grades. It is great to see a national park making all of its scenic treasures available to a wide audience!

Half Dome in Yosemite National Park

March Desktop Calendar

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 as Desktop Picture". The wording may vary.

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 from The Signature of All Things

***Spoiler Alert***
This post may contain plot details and quotes from The Signature of All

In the midst of the drama and intrigue that plays out in this book are some great mossy points for discussion. 

At one point Alma mentions that mosses have no internal skeleton to support themselves growing tall, thus they are relatively short. Additionally they cannot transport water within their bodies. Bryophytes are typically called non-vascular because that lack the conducting tissues of xylem and phloem. These tissues transport water and sugars to and from the roots and leaves. 

This is a distinction that I would often point out between bryophytes and other plants. More recently I have come to question and debate this point. Some mosses do have cells that move water and sugars internally from one part or their body to another, called hydroids and leptoids. They are similar to the cells of xylem and phloem of vascular plants. Some of them are dead at maturity and/or have modified end walls with perforations, allowing for faster transport. What these cells lack is the compound lignin in their cell walls. Lignin both strengthens the cell walls and makes them impermeable to water. Creating stronger and less leaky transport tubes. Lignin is what gives wood its strength and enables trees to grow tall. Mosses have some of the chemical precursors to lignin (Ligrone et al. 2008), but they did not evolve this compound. So I get that lignin is important, but some bryophytes do have conducting cells that move water and sugars around in their bodies. I wouldn't call them vascular, but they are not lacking internal water transport either. 


Alma describes mosses as being defined by what they lack. No flowers, no seed, no fruits, no roots, and no internal skeleton. Mosses also do not engage in sex. All these points are true except for the last one. Mosses do in fact produce offspring by sexual reproduction. They have eggs and swimming sperm that fuse to form the sporophyte offspring. My guess is that this inaccuracy was intentional. 

The alternation of generation in plants was elucidated in 1851 by Wilhelm Hofmeister (Kaplan and Cooke, 1996). Though Alma is described as having corresponded with researchers around the world, she may not have read Hofmeister's work. He was based in Germany and his 1851 work was printed by his family's publishing company. I am not sure how widely the work would have circulated at that time. Thus at this time the reproduction of mosses was a "mystery to the naked human eye". This aspect lead to their being known by the evocative name Cryptogamae, which means hidden marriage. 

So Alma's statement that mosses do not engage in sex was an accurate statement for that time in our scientific knowledge of plants. Kudos to the author and her bryological guru for their attention to detail. I think it is good when we acknowledge that science is not a static bank of knowledge. We are constantly discovering and expanding our understanding of the world around us. Looking back at the history of where science has been helps us to appreciate how far we have come

This is part of a series of posts about the bryology in The Signature of All. 
Click here for all the posts in the series. 


Deep Fried Moss

I was incredibly excited to find out about the Danish* restaurant Noma serving fried moss on the menu! My sister heard the story on a podcast from the America's Test Kitchen. In the show, host Christopher Kimball interviews RenĂ© Redzepi, the chef of Noma, during Segment #2 and the fried mosses are briefly mentioned at the end of their interview. Considering this restaurant is located in Copenhagen* and is on the extremely pricy end I don't think that I will be eating fried mosses there any time soon. But I really wanted to get a look at a plate and I did some hunting around online. 

There are a number of people who have taken photos of their plates and have posted them up online. I didn't want to repost personal photos, so I linked to a few of them that you can check out below.

After looking at a few of the plates did you discover the truth? It is not in fact a fried bryophyte, but is a fried lichen! Oh the mossy-misnomers. One of the common names for the lichen Cladonia rangiferina is reindeer moss and that is the organism that is fried and intended for eating. There are, however, mosses on the plates. Many of the plates look to be covered in Leucobryum, the pin cushion moss. Serving platters are typically washed and reused. Do you think they rinse off the mosses and then used them to serve the next customer. I would hate to hear that they tossed out the mosses after a single serving.

I also wonder if anyone tries to eat the bryophyte mosses off the plate? If they did, I don't think that they would find them too tasty or with much nutritional value. Not many animals eat mosses. Just a few northern creatures, such as caribou and lemmings. Based on caribou stomach contents, they mainly eat mosses during the winter and probably just to fill hungry stomachs. I remember a great graphic showing the percentages of items found in the stomachs of caribou throughout the year with a spike in the mosses during the winter, but I couldn't locate the study. If this reference rings a bell for anyone please drop a message in the comments. 

* An earlier version of this blog post incorrectly locate Noma in Norway. The restaurant Noma is actually located in Copenhagen, Denmark. Thanks to the commenter who pointed out the geographic error.

February 2014 Desktop Calendar

No I don't think that you should put me on your desktop for February : )  Continue reading and I will get to the calendar at the end of my tale.

During the sunny mild month of January I went to the California wine country with one of my good pals from my time as an undergraduate botany student at Miami University. We went to a number of lovely wineries that allowed us to walk around the vineyards with our glasses of wine. The vines were bare, both of fruit and leaves, but there were many wonderful shades of brown and the clouds were amazing! Since it was winter we were the only visitors at a number of the wineries in Sonoma and Alexander Valley. My favorite was the sparkling Pine Noir of Mumm Napa.  I would highly recommend checking out the wine country in the off-season.

We also went to see some redwoods at Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve. It was quiet and peaceful with these large giants early in the morning. And as you might have guessed they were covered in mosses. Unfortunately I didn't bring my camera on this trip and instead only had my cell phone, hence the photos don't have quite the resolution. Hopefully the sense of the landscape and the lushness of the mosses comes through in the calendar image for February below.

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 as Desktop Picture". The wording may vary.

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.

Berry Go Round #66

The latest edition of the plant carnival Berry Go Round has been posted at Notes of Nature

 Here in California the weather has been unseasonably warm, so I have not been going through much plant withdraw. However, this carnival might be especially good for folks in the eastern half of North America or other locations with winter in full swing. It may be quite a while before you all see any green plants peeking through the white snow. My favorite is Chris Martine's article in the Huffington Post. 3 Awesome Things We Learned About Plants in 2013. Enjoy these blog posts about plants to help you make it through this chilly season!

Thanks to Notes of Nature for including me in the lineup! 
For more about blog carnivals and my posts about the earlier editions of Berry Go Round, click here.

Addressing the Gender Issue

***Spoiler Alert***
This post may contain plot details and quotes from The Signature of All Things

It may seem unsurprising that a female bryologist in the early 1800's would disguise her gender on her initial publications. At the time women were not welcomed into scientific circles. Thus Alma's first publications were authored A. Whittaker. Later in the book, with age and time she publishes under her full name, Alma Whittaker. 
"No initials were appended to the name - no evidence of degrees, no membership in distinguished gentlemanly scientific organizations. Nor was she even a "Mrs.," with the dignity that such a title affords a lady. By now, quite obviously, everyone knew she was a woman. It mattered little." 
The reason she says it mattered little is that the world of bryophytes is not a competitive domain and thus she had been allowed to enter with little resistance. This is not just a casual statement. It is supported by the data (Special Report on Women as Academic Authors, 1665-2010 - Chronicle of Higher Education). From 1665-1970 only 8.4% of Ecology and Evolution articles were published by women, whereas in the field of Bryology almost twice as many female authors published (16.3%). Unfortunately disparities in publication rates between the sexes still remain (see the report's data from 1991-2010). 

Why do these disparities still exist? Could it be that our innate biases against women in the sciences negatively impacts women's publication rates? It has been shown that both male and female scientists are significantly biased against female applicants for research positions (Moss-Racusin et al. 2012). This article is behind a paywall. If you do not have access and are interested in reading the full study drop me an email. I could see this spilling over into the realm of scientific publication. It is often easy to tell whether someone is male or female by their first name, opening the door to inherent biases, which could influence both editors and reviewers. 

Inspired by the research of Moss-Racusin and others, professors in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department at the University of Connecticut are carrying out a gender-blind faculty search. Both applicants and reviewers are requested to use initials or refer to the person applying as 'the candidate'. In an earlier experiment, they attempted to redact all gender-identifying information from applications, but one committee member was able to guess the applicant's gender by the difference in space he vs. she takes up in a sentence (Jones and Urban 2013). They outline and give detailed examples to guide the removal of gender-identifying content. 

Even with these detailed guidelines, there is seemingly no way to address the potential issue that recommendation letter writers typically use different words when describing men vs. women (Madera et al. 2009) [HT to M.T-T. for bringing this point up at lunch]. An example might be using action words such as "independent" and "confident" to describe a man and communal words such as "nurturing" and "helpful" to describe a woman. Hopefully letter writers that are writing for a gender-neutral application will be more aware of gender-biases and thus some of these language differences will disappear. I wonder if they could use this gender-blind search to study that? They could address the question: Do recommendation letter writers use less gender-biased language when they are writing for a gender-neutral job search, compared to a job search where gender-neutrality was not explicitly mentioned in the job advertisement? I would be really interested to know if a gender-neutral job search could also influence recommendation letter language. 

Overall I think that this gender-blind faculty search is a progressive undertaking that will help raise awareness about gender-biases that still exist in the sciences and I am really interested to hear how the process goes. I feel positive that the steps they are taking will decrease bias. What I still wonder is whether this type of job search will result in an increase in the number of female faculty hired? Unfortunately this job search only gives us a sample size of one. Similar efforts are needed nation-wide before we will see if decreasing gender-bias results in more women faculty in the sciences. 

January 2014 Desktop Calendar

We went out on a hike this weekend to Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve, about an hour outside of Davis into the coastal mountains to the west. Unfortunately the rainy season here in the central valley has been anything but rainy. It is still warm and dusty. A little cooler than the summer, but otherwise not much has change. Thus the mosses that we saw on our hike were quite crispy and dry. Fortunately I found a few that were photogenic no matter their state of hydration. Hopefully January and February will have some rain, but I am not actually very optimistic. This is what the global climate change models predict. Dry places like the central valley will get drier and we are experiencing it first hand.

(IDENTIFICATION UPDATE - 14 April 2014 - This
 is the moss Dendroalsia abietinaI met this species on the SOBEFREE foray at the end of 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 as Desktop Picture". The wording may vary.

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.

Just the Tip of the Iceberg - Part 3 The Signature of All Things

***Spoiler Alert***
This post may contain plot details and quotes from The Signature of All Things

The first five pages of Part 3 focus on mosses with an intensity that covers a wide breadth of topics. 

We are regaled with the fact that mosses are "effortless to transport". They are not only small and light, but easily dried and thus avoid spoilage. Due to these qualities, mosses have been used as packing material for goods and other plants for centuries. The Whittaker botanical company also took advantage of these mossy features, using them to ship plants. Thus Alma not only traded and imported mosses herself, but she was able to mine the crates stored in her family's warehouses, which were filled with dried mosses from around the globe. 

After years of study, Alma accumulated an extensive herbarium. She collected over 8,000 species of mosses, which seems to me a pretty high number considering Alma is written to have worked about 150 years ago. Currently the number of species of mosses is close to 12,500, so that puts Alma at having collected and identified 64% of present day moss species diversity. All without leaving her home in Pennsylvania. I wonder how many species of moss were described by 1848? I am not sure where I would even go to try to locate that fact? A species count from Hedwig would be too early, whereas Brotherus would be too late. Who would have been a contemporary bryologist of Alma Whittaker, living and working during the first half of the 1800's? I will have to do some digging around to see what bryological history I can uncover. 

Alma also writes several books that as a bryologist I would most certainly have on my shelf. By 48 years of age she has written The Complete Mosses of Pennsylvania and The Complete Mosses of the Northeastern United States and has just begun work on The Complete Mosses of North America. The titles of the books could have been a little more creative or perhaps variable, but the sense of her productivity is firmly established. 

In leu of these imaginary books, I would recommend these real identification guides for exploring mosses in Pennsylvania and the Northeast: Outstanding Mosses and Liverworts of Pennsylvania and Nearby States and Common Mosses of the Northeast and AppalachiansAs for a good field guide that tackles mosses across all of North America, there are not any that I particularly like. Also a book covering mosses across the entire continent would be a pretty large tome to tote around in the field. My personal preference for identification is a regional guide with a more limited set of species to sift through. If you have a smartphone and internet access, a light field option with wide coverage could be the online Bryophyte Flora of North America. A key to the genera is posted here. Unfortunately all the links are broken and thus it is not connected to the descriptions. The full descriptions are arranged by family here, but you need to know the connections between the two to make them work together. The key is preliminary, so hopefully they will be linked in the final version.

Mosses back from the holidays

I am back from the holidays and some moss photography and blogging is on the menu for my upcoming weekend. 

In the meantime, check out this great post by Juan Carlos Villarreal on Peat, Whiskey, and Genomes. It is jam packed with fun moss facts, references, and lovely photos.