Field of Science

The Signature of All Things: Part 2 - Catching bryophyte fever

***Spoiler Alert***
This post may contain plot details and quotes from Parts 1 & 2 of The Signature of All Things. Proceed with caution!

The second part of The Signature of All Things focuses on the childhood of the main character Alma Whittaker. In my mind the true main characters, the bryophytes, have yet to truly arrive on the scene. There is a brief mention of mosses being used by birds as material for nest building. Alma also uses mosses to fill the chinks in the walls of her study to cut down on winter drafts. Hornworts come up during a scientific discussion between Alma and her colleague George Hawkes. He describes them to another friend as "...among our least sophisticated plants-". I take mild offense to that statement. I think hornworts are super interesting and highly sophisticated in their ability to establish a mutualistic interaction with cyanobacteria (blue-green algae). They have pores on the underside of the plant that open to allow the algae to enter. The algae then live and grow inside of the hornwort helping to fix nitrogen, making it available for the hornwort to use. I think that establishing a relationship like that is pretty sophisticated. Don't you?

At the tail end of Part 2 bryophytes take their rightful place at center stage. Alma has a revelation that right beneath her nose, on the land she has known her entire life, is a world unexplored. The miniature world of mosses. An entire rock may be covered by dozens of species that occupy distinct niches. A little sunnier over here, a little wetter over there, makes for diverse habitats even within a few feet. It is amazing how small changes in the microclimate can make such a big difference to the bryophytes. The description of Alma's epiphany to focus her botanical energies on mosses is full of lovely imagery, such as the passage below. 
"Now the miniature forest below her gaze sprang into majestic detail. She felt her breath catch. This was a stupefying kingdom. This was the Amazon jungle as seen from the back of a harpy eagle. She rode her eye above the surprising landscape, following its paths in every direction. Here were rich, abundant valleys filled with tiny trees of braided mermaid hair and minuscule, tangled vines. Here were barely visible tributaries running through that jungle..."
Having done so myself, falling in love with bryophytes is an amazing experience. Upon closer inspection, you realize that there is a world of wonder to explore in miniature. The closer you look the more there is to discover. An adventure that can last a lifetime. 

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