Field of Science

Lamellae Story Debunked

I have been relaying the science tale of lamellae as snorkels for quite a while now (here and here on this blog) and I recently came across some scientific literature that completely debunks that idea. Honestly I am not sure if I read about the snorkel idea somewhere or if it just emerged as common knowledge from taking classes and reading. Sometimes there are just "factoids" that exist our heads and we may not know where they came from. As a scientist I totally should have been more careful about the source of my information prior to relaying in the public sphere on this blog. Despite this embarrassing misleading information, I would like to offer a correction via this post.

The dilemma is that mosses and other bryophytes typically interact with water and air differently than other plants. Vascular plants have roots and internal plumbing (xylem cells) that move water into their body and they take gasses in via stomata, small openings in the leaf surface. Bryophytes on the other hand do not have roots or xylem cells to move the water, they absorb water directly through their entire plant body. They also do not have stomata on the gametophyte plant and thus take up gasses across their entire plant body, too.

Think of having to both drink and breath through your skin at the same time. The parts that are taking up water can't exchange gasses and the parts exchanging gasses can't take up water. So, what's a bryophyte to do?

Well Polytrichum has solved this dilemma using its lamellae. They are the green filaments of cells (see above) on the upper surface of the leaf. They are not acting as snorkels. Instead they are creating spaces for small pockets of air between the lamellae for gas exchange. The air spaces do not become filled by water due to a waxy cuticle that covers the epidermis and the cells at the tips of the lamellae. In Polytrichum water is acquired via internal conduction through the stem of the leafy gametophyte. This internal plumbing is not very advanced, but you can see some of the small conducting cells in the center of this cross-section through the stem of the leafy gametophyte. This plumbing continues into the leaves. 

So that is a bit about our current level of understanding when it comes to lamellae on Polytrichum leaves. Once again I apologize for any confusion I may have caused. It just goes to show that it is important to cite your sources and to double check the knowledge in your head every once in a while.

The papers that I consulted for writing up this explanation are listed below.


  1. GREAT photos, Jess.

    Thanks for the clarification. :-)

  2. I love your blog!!! I just stumbled across it looking for pictures of moss life cycle parts to create an interactive method of learning the moss life cycle for my Systematics of Nonvascular Plants course I will be teaching a year from now. I would love to use some of your photos with your permission. What I plan to do is laminate terms and the pictures of the individual parts of the moss life cycle. Apply velcro to the backs of the terms and pictures and give these to the students to arrange on a fleece covered board. I think this might help them learn the life cycle. I will only use your pictures with your permission.

  3. I was just teaching my students about lamellae last week. Thank you for taking to time to clarify their function. Very enlightening!

  4. I like this entry, really helpful.


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