Field of Science

Berry Go Round #2

The second edition of Berry Go Round has been posted at Further Thoughts. This is a blog carnival that features current events in the botanical world and interesting plant topics. One of the gals I met on the Tropical Ferns and Lycophytes OTS course to Costa Rica has had her blog post about Nephrolepis featured in the carnival. There are also a number of other cool plant articles discussed in this carnival. No mention of the mosses or other bryophytes, but they do have plenty of other neat stories about green plants.

For more about blog carnivals and a link to edition #1 of Berry Go Round, see my post from Monday January 28th 2008.

Moss Poetry

Here is another poem from the author of last week's Sphagnum poem. This poem has some great visual descriptions and it also has a few gruesome parts so be forewarned. In the poem Leucobryum is described as turquoise colored. However my photo is more of a minty, light green. This is a photo of Leucobryum albidum. I think of Leucobryum glaucum as darker in color and probably closer to his description.

Leucobryum glaucum by Giles Watson (October 2004)

Split cases of beech nuts form a crust six inches thick,
the insides squirrel-gnawed, their curled spines turning
into mould. Crows claw the branches; buzzards clamour,
their nest at the centre of this wood. The distant chunter
of mallards, half-tamed for shooting. In the grass, a snare.

Cushions of Leucobryum, turquoise coloured and crisp,
quieten my tread to a dry crunching, hunched like the backs
of hedgehogs. Beside one, a dirty-grey skull—a weasel’s—
cleaved half-open. Cartridge cases encased in soil.

And though gunshots have defiled the sacred space,
And crows hang, inverted, from wires, by night
the Leucobryum gleams where moonlight catches it,
and the fox pads past, avoids the snare by habit
long established. Dew falls. Spore cases rise,
the calyptra hooked a little, like tiny Devil’s horns.

Click here for a link to the original posting of this poem and other botanical poetry.
Below the fold is a blurb from the author about his inspiration for this poem.

"Source material. Leucobryum glaucum forms high-domed cushions on acid soils, and is capable of withstanding long dry spells. When dry it turns a turquoise colour, or even goes completely white. It rapidly revives when moistened. Fruiting such as that described in the poem is a comparatively rare occurrence; the plant more often reproduces through rhizoids which grow from the upper leaves and develop into small tufts which become detached and independent. See Arthur L. Jewell, The Observer’s Book of Mosses and Liverworts, London, 1955, p. 57. I lived for a year in Dropmore, near Burnham, in Buckinghamshire, and observed this moss regularly in the neighbouring Bristles Wood, which was unfortunately the domain of a particularly brutal gamekeeper at the time. Despite his depredations, a remarkable diversity of wildlife was to be observed within the wood, especially at night."

Wild Welsh and their Bogs

While thinking about bogs I decided to peruse the internet and see what other interesting adventures people have had in bogs. And guess what I came across? Bog Snorkeling. No joke.

It is amazing the things that you can find on the internet. This sport was started about 15 years ago to to bring attention to Llanwrtyd Wells, the smallest town in Great Britain. The contest consists of a 60 yard trench that is dug into the bog, which fills with water from the surrounding area. Contestants swim two lengths of the trench using snorkels, masks and scuba fins. Some people wear funny outfits to add to the hilarity. Proceeds from the event are donated to a charity.

I think that this is a super crazy activity. If you want to experience the wildness of the event, below the fold is a YouTube Video from the 2007 Bog Snorkeling Championship in Wales.

As a biologist I don't think that a 60 foot long trench is very good for the health of the bog. However this sport is only held once a year so it is probably not making a hugely negative impact on the vegetation. They might even use the same trench from year to year. Recycling at its best.

There is also Mountain Bike Bog Snorkeling and a Bog Snorkeling Triathlon. I have included the links if you are interested to learn more.

Fun Times in Bogs

I have been to several bogs since I started studying mosses. These include a couple of local bogs in Connecticut and I visited a bog in Costa Rica this past January. The picture doesn't look much like a bog from this angle. There are quite a few shrubs growing in the bog and a tree growing at the edge. But when you look down you are greeted by the most typical bog moss of them all Sphagnum (peat moss). The second photo is of the ground covered by Sphagnum, peeking up between the blades of grass. If you have never been to a bog it is quite the experience. Boots or water shoes are a necessity, because bogs are very wet places. Walking on Sphagnum covered ground is like walking on an enormous sponge. It is squishy, wet and can be hard to keep your footing. This is due to a couple of fantastic Sphagnum properties.
1) Sphagnum can hold up to 20X its dry weight in water.
2) The water laden Sphagnum sets up anaerobic conditions, in which the nothing decays. Thus all of the dead Sphagnum just piles up with the newest plants growing on top of the old dead ones. That creates the spongy effect.

I also visited a floating bog in Wisconsin a few years back, where we had to take a small boat out onto the lake to reach a floating Sphagnum mat. Walking on this bog was like walking on a water bed. The ground was very unstable and I could feel the water rolling under me. Floating bogs such as this are a little dangerous and the buddy system should definitely be in effect. If you jump up and down too violently or don't watch out for holes in the Sphagnum, you can fall through. One grad students from Harvard University who was on this trip found this out the hard way. He didn't watch his footing and sank into the water up to his chest. Fortunately there was a shrub nearby that he grabbed on to, so he didn't go under and was able to pull himself out. But it was scary none the less.

I think that bogs are a really awesome natural habitat. They are totally fun to visit and I would highly recommend visiting one if you ever have the chance.

Moss Poetry

Sphagnum spp. by Giles Watson (October 2004)
An early memory: the Sphagnum swamp
pockmarked with old tree stumps,
and punctuated by the gruff plonks
of pobblebonks mating. Each step
leaves the thuck of water oozing back
while brown frogs writhe inside the moss.

Tussocks slowly parted, safely,
with a stick. A black snake coils.
Locusts click singly in the heat.

Perhaps this explains, two decades later,
Why, walking among bog-moss
and navelworts, spiked by rushes,
near Burnham Beeches, where the ground
grows soggy—a hemisphere away—
I am longing for frogs and adders.

First, perhaps, an injured hind,
her fetlock grazed by a clattering stone,
made her way through the heath
and hoary bilberries, to the edge
of the blanket bog, and half-knelt there
with the bloodstain spreading through
moss already purpled.

Later, at the battle
of Clonterf, the wounded, biting
on lead, stuffed their own gashes
with the whitened clumps of Sphagnum,
and at Flodden, with green bog-moss
and soft grass.

There has always been utility
in a simple that sucks up blood
more perfectly than dressings we can make.

From the hind’s graze to the shrapnel wound,
the virtue is the same.

Click here for a link to the original posting of this poem and other botanical poetry.
Below the fold is a blurb from the author about his inspiration for this poem.

Source material. The first poem is inspired by two encounters with Sphagnum bogs, one in the Brindabella mountains, A.C.T., Australia, in the early 1980s, and the other in 2003, at Burnham Beeches in Buckinghamshire. Pobblebonks are a startlingly vocal species of Australian frog, and their name is accurately onomatopoeic. The second poem alludes to the highly absorbent nature of Sphagnum. The leaves are filled with tiny tubes which suck up fluids by capillary action. The history of the use of Sphagnum as a surgical dressing is described in Mrs. Grieve’s A Modern Herbal, p. 553–4. It has been used for this purpose into modern times, and indeed, surgeons at the western front during the First World War soon realized that it was superior to cotton wool, because “A pad of Sphagnum moss absorbs the discharge in lateral directions, as well as immediately above the wound... [and] the wounds of our men at the front were of such a suppurating character as to require specially absorbent dressings...”

Announcement for Bryology Field Courses

2008 Eagle Hill Bryology Seminars at the Humboldt Institute on the coast of Maine!

June 29 - July 5
Acrocarpous Mosses of the North Woods with Jon and Blanka Shaw
July 6 - 12
Bryophytes for Naturalists with Fred C. Olday
August 3 - 9
Ecology of Liverworts and Mosses with Nancy G. Slack and Paul G. Davison

Descriptions of seminars can be found at at the website of the Humboldt Field Research Institute and the Eagle Hill Foundation.

I have not attended these seminars before but I have known some other graduate students and amateur moss lovers who have attended them. They come highly recommended! I really would love to take one of these courses, however they always seem to conflict with my summer plans. In addition, I have meet most of the scientists who are leading the courses, except for Fred Olday. Those that I have met are exciting, knowledgeable, good scientists, and great teachers. So if you have some time this summer and are in the mood for some moss adventures you should consider these awesome field courses.

Below the fold is the detailed blurb about the natural history seminars that was sent out by the Eagle Hill Foundation.


In support of field biologists, modern field naturalists, and students of the natural history sciences, Eagle Hill offers specialty seminars and workshops at different ecological scales for those who are interested in understanding, addressing, and solving complex ecological questions. Seminars topics range from watershed level subjects, and subjects in classical ecology, to highly specialized seminars in advanced biology, taxonomy, and ecological restoration. Eagle Hill has long been recognized as offering hard-to-find seminars and workshops which provide important opportunities for training and meeting others who are likewise dedicated to the natural history sciences.

Eagle Hill field seminars are of special interest because they focus on the natural history of one of North America's most spectacular and pristine natural areas, the coast of eastern Maine from Acadia National Park to Petit Manan National Wildlife Refuge and beyond. Most seminars combine field studies with follow-up lab studies and a review of the literature. Additional information is provided in lectures, slide presentations, and discussions. Seminars are primarily taught for people who already have a reasonable background in a seminar program or in related subjects, or who are keenly interested in learning about a new subject. Prior discussions of personal study objectives are welcome.

Mosses as Successional Plants

After a large scale disturbance such as a forest fire or glaciation, mosses are one of the initial colonizers of open soil. The website for the Glacial Bay National Park has a nice series of successional photos with mosses as the first stage. The mosses create a moist environment that can favor seed germination of the flowering plants that will come after the mosses.

The website for the National Parks of Alaska has a glacial successional exercise for students to carry out in the classroom. This exercise examines the interaction between glaciers and biological ecosystems. In part II the students make a "glacier" out of a large ice cube and expose plants to the cold and examine the effects. They suggest using Impatiens plants, but I think that mosses would be great to use as well.

I have found mosses very easy to grow in the lab. I either collect sporophytes and then sew the spores onto fresh soil. Or I take leafy gametophytes from the wild and grind them up in some water using a mortar and pestle. Then I pour the moss slurry onto the soil. With a lid and some plastic wrap, protonema start to grow in a couple of weeks and there are leafy gametophytes within a month. I am not sure if as dramatic a response to the cold would be seen with the mosses. Where it does become cold and snowy during the winter, the mosses stay bright green and alive beneath the snow pack. So it would be really interesting to see how they respond to cold without the insulating effects of a snow pack. Overall I think that it looked like a pretty cool exercise for teachers to use in the classroom.

Moss Fossils

Another national area with cool mosses is the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. It is located near Colorado Springs, Colorado and has some of the most diverse fossil beds in the world. Around 1700 different species have been described from this monument alone. Considering that fossilization is a chance event that requires very specific conditions, it is pretty amazing that this many species were preserved within a 6,000 acre area. Most of the fossilized plants and animals are from the Eocene epoch (one of the fancy names for dividing up the past into smaller chunks), which was approximately 55 to 34 million years ago (mya).

They have an online museum where they list some of the fossilized species along with their photos that have been found at the monument. Their fossil list would not be complete without mentioning the fossilized mosses. One of the species that they found is Plagiopodopsis cockerelliae (Cockerell's moss) and they have a very detailed photograph of the fossil posted online. This moss is really tiny. I think that the scale bar that they show is a centimeter long with the tick marks indicating millimeters. This fossil appears well preserved. Individual leaves and the sporophytes topped by calyptrae can be seen in the fossil. (A calyptra is a organ that grows from the leafy green maternal gametophyte. It covers the sporophyte during its development.) I think calyptrae are really neat organs. Studying their interaction with the developing sporophyte is the main focus of my PhD.

This fossil of Plagiopodopsis cockerelliae is a more recent fossil than many of those found at the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. It is from the Miocene epoch (23 to 5 mya). I guess recent is all relative. It is recent considering that mosses evolved around 400 mya. The age of this fossil is not mentioned on the website. I did some research and found this publication on fossil mosses that discusses Plagiopodopsis cockerelliae in more detail.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchSteere, W. C. 1946. Cenozoic and Mesozoic Bryophytes of North America. American Midland Naturalist 36(2):298-324.

Some fun facts about Plagiopodopsis cockerelliae from the paper are below the fold.

1) This was the first fossil moss found with sporophytes in North America.

2) It was collected from the Florissant lake deposits by Professor and Mrs. T. D. A. Cockerell in 1906. Hence the common name (Cockerell's moss) and specific epithet (cockerelliae).

3)In 1915 E. G. Britton described the fossil genus Plagiopodopsis. She thought that it resembled the living moss Plagiopus, hence the similarities in the names. However in Steere's (1946) paper he mentions that the specimens of Plagiopodopsis that he has seen do not look like Plagiopus. Thus he is of the opinion that this fossil and living taxa are not closely related and the scientific names are misleading.

{This post is dedicated to my friends who are in love with Colorado Springs.}

Into the Depths of Crater Lake

I searched the National Parks websites for moss just to see how many of the other parks mention them. I was pleasantly surprised that quite a few of them talk about moss and other bryophytes that can be found in the parks. One of the interesting articles that I found was a report on the deep water plants that live in Crater Lake National Park, Oregon. They used a one-person submarine to explore the rock walls the lake for plant life. Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the United States at a depth of 1,943 feet (592 meters). And what do you think they found living 759 feet (253 meters) below the water's surface?

Well a moss of course! This finding extended the known depth to which mosses can grow by 100 meters and it is most likely the world record depth for a moss. The moss that they found was in the genus Drepanocladis (Drepanocladus - possible spelling error on their part?). This is a bit of old news, seeing as how this discovery was made in 1988. I am not sure if any mosses have been more recently found to grow deeper than this. If I find out that they have I will be sure to let you know.

I think that it is pretty cool that a moss can live and grow that far under water. However how in the world does it get enough light to photosynthesize? Water depths in the open-ocean are divided up into different zones depending on the amount of light that can penetrate the water. Photosynthesis occurs in the euphotic zone which is 0 to 660 feet (200 meters) in depth. The thing is these are numbers that apply to the open-ocean. Lakes are a different story and depending on the turbidity (haziness) of the water light might not be able to penetrate nearly as deep. So how in the world does this moss stay alive that far below the water's surface? At this point I am not sure, but if you have a hypothesis feel free to put it up in the comments section. I will keep thinking about this and if I have any ideas I will be sure to let you know.

Longing for Spring

I know that I have only been back from the warm climate of Costa Rica for a couple of weeks, but I am already tired of winter. (This photo was taken from the top of a mountain on a beautiful day in Costa Rica.) Today in Connecticut it was icky, slushy, raininess with overcast skies. Thus I am looking forward to summer and am already planning a weekend vacation escape. A lot of people head to the beach but I am not a big fan of sand. I would much rather go where there are woods, great views, and fun hiking trails. My current vacation dream spot is Acadia National Park in Maine. I visited with my family about 10 years ago and I would love to go back. I have great memories of hiking and climbing the rocky trails. Also we got up early one morning and watched the sunrise from the top of Cadillac Mountain .
"It is said that, at some times of the year, the sun touches the slopes of Cadillac Mountain before any other place in the United States. At 1,530 feet, Cadillac is the highest point along the North Atlantic seaboard." From the National Park Service website.
The National Park Service also has a blurb under the Plants Section for Acadia National Park entitled Mosses and Liverworts. Here is what they had to say about our bryophyte pals that live in the park
"If you find a bog in Acadia National Park you are sure to see sphagnum (pronounced “sfagnum”) moss. Mosses, like ferns, reproduce by spores. However, mosses don’t have well-developed conductive tissue and therefore cannot move water and nutrients throughout their systems as effectively as ferns and other vascular plants. Because of this, mosses by necessity always grow in low mats in wet areas close to their nutrient source.
Sphagnum species are common and come in shades of green, red, and brown. Bog hummocks, which are small mounds of sphagnum, often form to create an undulating bog surface. Each species of sphagnum finds its own niche based on levels of soil moisture.Therefore, the species of sphagnum growing on the top of the hummocks are usually different from the ones growing between the hummocks!"

Mosses as the Ultimate House Plant

As many of you know, house plants require regular watering and attention. I usually water mine once a week unless it is quite hot. If I forget to water them they start to wilt and with extreme lack of attention on my part they shrivel and die, which has happened on occasion.

Most flowering plants are drought tolerant. Meaning, they can handle times with low amounts of water, but mostly they try to avoid drying out completely. They have a number of cool features that keep water from escaping their bodies. Bark and a thick waxy cuticle layer keeps water in the stems and leaves, respectively. They can also control how open or closed their stomata are to regulate the amount of water that escapes from these pores. And an extensive root system keeps a constant stream of water flowing into the plant.

Mosses have a completely different system than the one I just described. Instead of having features that keep them from drying out, they are ready and willing to dry out at a moments notice. They are termed dessication tolerant. They have the ability to loose ~100% of the water in their cells and then when watered they come back to life. It is as though they are able to go into periods of suspended animation while they wait for the water to return.

Most flowering plants are not dessication tolerant. If they loose 70-100% of the water from their cells they are toast (aka. dry and dead) and will not recover. However having a moss as a house plant would be a great solution for those of us who sometimes forget to water the plants before leaving for vacation. They could dry out completely for a number of days and happily return to life when watered again. Thus I would consider them the ultimate resilient house plant!

Shown here is a photo of a Polytrichum that is all dried up and crispy, patiently waiting for some moisture to come its way.

This post was stimulated by an article that I am currently reading. See below the fold for the reference, which includes more detailed information on dessication tolerance in mosses.

Proctor, M. C. F., M. J. Oliver, A. J. Wood, P. Alpert, L. R. Stark, N. L. Cleavitt, and B. D. Mishler. 2007. Dessication-tolerance in bryophytes: a review. The Bryologist 110(4):595-621.