Growing Camouflage

 A garden on the back of a weevil living a humid Chilean rainforest.

A garden on the back of a weevil living a humid Chilean rainforest.

Lots of us will be familiar with organisms like decorator crabs that utilize bits and pieces of their environment, especially living sea anemones, as a form of camouflage and protection. Examples of terrestrial insects attaching bits and pieces of lichens to their body are not unheard of either. However, there are at least two groups of arthropods that take their camouflage to a whole new level by actively growing miniature gardens on their bodies.

Little is known about these garden-growing arthropods. To date, these miniature gardens have only been reported on a few species of weevil in the genus Gymnopholus as well as a species of millipede called Psammodesmus bryophorus. Coined epizoic symbiosis, it is thought that these gardens serve as a form of protection by camouflaging the gardeners against the backdrop of their environment.

 Bryophytes on a  Psammodesmus bryophorus  male.

Bryophytes on a Psammodesmus bryophorus male.

Indeed, both groups of arthropods frequent exposed areas. What is most remarkable about this relationship is that these plants were not placed on the carapace from elsewhere in the environment. Instead, they have been actively growing there from the beginning. Closer inspection of the cuticle of these arthropods reveals unique structural adaptations like pits and hairs that provide favorable microclimates for spores to germinate and grow.

The plant communities largely consist of mosses and liverworts. At least 5 different liverwort families are represented and at least one family of moss. Even more remarkable is the fact that even these small botanical communities are enough to support a miniature ecosystem of their own. Researchers have found numerous algae such as diatoms, lichens, and a variety of fungi growing amidst the mosses and liverworts. These in turn support small communities of mites. It appears that an entire unknown ecosystem lives on the backs of these mysterious arthropods.

 FIGURE 39. Elytral base of Gymnopholus (Niphetoscapha) nitidus with exudates. FIGURES 40a–b. Gymnopholus (Niphetoscapha) inexspectatus sp. n., live specimen with incrustrations of algae and lichens; photographs M. Wild, Mokndoma.  [SOURCE]

FIGURE 39. Elytral base of Gymnopholus (Niphetoscapha) nitidus with exudates. FIGURES 40a–b. Gymnopholus (Niphetoscapha) inexspectatus sp. n., live specimen with incrustrations of algae and lichens; photographs M. Wild, Mokndoma. [SOURCE]

There is still much to be learned about this symbiotic relationship. Although camouflage is the leading hypothesis, no work has been done to actually investigate the benefits these arthropods receive from actively growing these miniature gardens on their backs. Mysteries still abound. For instance, in the case of the millipede, gardens are found more frequently on the backs of males than on the backs of females. Could it be that males spend more time searching their environment and thus benefit from the added camouflage? Only further research will tell.

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3]

An Ancient Hawaiian Moss

Sphagnum_palustre_030208a.jpg

The cloud forests of Kohala Mountain on the island of Hawai'i are home to a unique  botanical community. One plant in particular is quite special as it may be one of the most ancient clonal organisms in existence. Look down at your feet and you may find yourself surrounded by a species of moss known as Sphagnum palustre. Although this species enjoys a broad distribution throughout the northern hemisphere, its presence on this remote volcanic island is worth closer inspection. 

Hawai'i is rather depauperate in Sphagnum representatives and those that have managed to get to this archipelago are often restricted to growing in narrow habitable zones between 900 to 1,900 meters in elevation as these are the only spots that are cool and wet enough to support Sphagnum growth. Needless to say, successful colonization of the Hawaiian Islands by Sphagnum has been a rare event.  The fact that Sphagnum palustre was one of the few that did should not come as any surprise. What should surprise you, however, is how this particular species has managed to persist. 

 Mounds of  S. palustre  in its native habitat. 

Mounds of S. palustre in its native habitat. 

Hawaiian moss aficionados have long noted that the entire population of Kohala's S. palustre mats never seem to produce a single female individual. Indeed, this moss is dioicous, meaning individuals are either male or female. As such, many have suspected that the mats of S. palustre growing on Kohala represented a single male individual that has been growing vegetatively ever since it arrived as a spore on the island. The question then becomes, how long has this S. palustre individual been on Kohala?

To answer that, researchers decided to take a look at its DNA. What they discovered was surprising in many ways. For starters, all plants were in fact males of a single individual. A rare genetic trait was found in the DNA of every population they sampled. This trait is so rare that the odds of it turning up in any number by sheer chance is infinitesimally small. What this means is that every S. palustre population found on Kohala is a clone of a single spore that landed on the mountain at some point in the distant past. Exactly how distant was the next question the team wanted to answer. 

 A lush cloud forest on the slopes of Kohala.

A lush cloud forest on the slopes of Kohala.

The first clue to this mystery came from peat deposits found on the slopes of the mountain. Researchers found remains of S. palustre in peat deposits that were dated to somewhere around 24,000 years old. So, it would appear that S. palustre has been growing on Kohala since at least the late Pleistocene. But how long before that time did this moss arrive?

Again, DNA was the key to unlocking this mystery. By studying the rate at which mutations arise and fix themselves within the genetic code of this plant, they were able to estimate the average rate of mutation through time. By sampling different moss populations on Kohala, they could then use those estimates to figure out just how long each mat has been growing. Their estimates suggest that the ancestral male sport arrived on Hawai'i somewhere between 49,000 and 50,000 years ago and it has been cloning itself ever since. 

 A large mat of  S. palustre

A large mat of S. palustre

As if that wasn't remarkable in and of itself, their thorough analysis of the genetic diversity within S. palustre revealed a remarkable amount of genetic diversity for a clonal organism. Though not all genetic mutations are beneficial, enough of them have managed to fix themselves into the DNA of the moss clones over thousands of years. The DNA of S. palustre is challenging long-held assumptions about genetic diversity of asexual organisms.

Of course, no conversation about Hawaiian botany would be complete without mention of invasive species. As one can expect at this point, Kohala's S. palustre populations are being crowded out by more aggressive vegetation introduced from elsewhere in the world. Unlike a lot of Hawaiian plants, however, the clonal habit of S. palustre puts a more nuanced twist to this story. 

Because Sphagnum is spongy yet durable, it has often been used as packing material. Packages stuffed with S. palustre from Kohala have been sent all over the island and because of this, S. palustre is now showing up en masse on other islands in the archipelago. Sadly, when it starts to grow in habitats that have never experienced the ecosystem engineering traits of a Sphagnum  moss, S. palustre gets pretty out of hand. It's not just packages that spread it either. All it takes is one sprig of the moss stuck on someone's boot to start a new colony elsewhere. The unique flora elsewhere in the Hawaiian archipelago have not evolved to compete with S. palustre and as a result, escaped populations are rapidly changing the ecology to the detriment of other endemic Hawaiian plants. 

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4]

Further Reading: [1] [2] 

Meet The Powder Gun Moss

I get very excited when I am able to identify a new moss. This is mainly due to the fact that moss ID is one of my weakest points. I was sitting down on a rock the other day taking a break from vegetation surveys when I looked to my right and saw something peculiar. The area was pretty sloped and there was some exposed soil in the vicinity. Covering some of that soil was what looked like green fuzz. Embedded in that fuzz were these strange green urns.

I busted out my hand lens and got a closer look. This was definitely a moss but one I had never seen before. The urns turned out to be capsules. Later, a bit of searching revealed this to be a species of moss in the genus Diphyscium. This genus is the largest within the family Diphysciaceae and here in North America, we have two representatives - D. foliosum and D. mucronifolium.

These peculiar mosses have earned themselves the common name 'powder gun moss.' The reason for this lies in those strange sessile capsules. Unlike other mosses that send their capsules up on long, hair-like seta in order to disperse their spores on the faintest of breezes, the Diphyscium capsules remain close to the ground. In lieu of wind, a powder gun moss uses rain. In much the same way puffball mushrooms harness the pounding of raindrops, so too do the capsules of the powder gun moss. Each raindrop that hits a capsule releases a cloud of spores that are ejected into an already humid environment full of germination potential.

Luckily for moss lovers like myself, the two species of Diphyscium here in North America tend to enjoy very different habitats. This makes a positive ID much more likely. D. foliosum prefers to grow on bare soils whereas D. mucronifolium prefers humid rock surfaces. Because of this distinction, I am quite certain the species I encountered is D. foliosum. And what a pleasant encounter it was. Like I said, it isn't often I accurately ID a moss so this genus now holds a special place in my mind.

Further Reading: [1] [2]

 

One Badass Moss

Badass and moss are two words that don't find themselves in the same sentence very often, if ever. Today I would like to introduce you to one moss that is certainly worth such a description. Meet Ceratodon purpureus, sometimes referred to as "fire moss." This lowly bryophyte is tough as nails and enjoys a global distribution because of it. From fires and heavy metal pollution to living in our most densely populated urban areas, this moss is a survivor. What's more, its ecology is absolutely fascinating.

Fire moss is truly cosmopolitan. It can be found on every continent and may only lose ground in the tropics where it is replaced by its close relatives. Though we often think of mosses as delicate denizens of shaded forest floors, fire moss is anything but. This is a disturbance-loving species. It gets the name fire moss for its habit of turning up in profusion following wildfires. Cleared of its competition, fire mosses growth can be quite explosive.

Being able to grow on a variety of substrates means that fire moss is equally at home in man-made habitats. It can be found growing in and along sidewalk cracks, old roofs, depressions in asphalt, and on wooden structures. What's more, it can tolerate pollution levels that would normally kill most mosses. One study found that moss grown on mine soils contaminated with toxic levels of heavy metals showed absolutely no decrease in fitness. In fact, they were indistinguishable from moss grown on clean soils.

This moss' lifecycle is ephemeral. Because it needs disturbance to persist, natural succession usually causes it to disappear from a site after a decade or two. Its spores, however, can remain viable for upwards of 16 years in the soil until fire, bulldozer, or any other large-scale disturbance opens the land again.

One of the strangest aspects of this fire moss is how it reproduces. Like all mosses, male gametophytes produce sperm that must make their way to the female gametophyte. They do this by swimming. Whereas moss species living in wet environments can let rain do the work of uniting the sex cells, fire moss has evolved a strategy more familiar to the flowering plants.

It was found that fire moss emits complex volatile scents. What's more, these scents are produced at different rates in the different sexes with females producing much more scent than males. It was found that microarthropods, specifically springtails, are attracted to these scents. Close investigation revealed that springtails significantly increased the fertilization rates in fire moss, hinting at quite a specific reproductive relationship between these organisms, both of which are representatives of some of the first organisms to ever make it onto land.

If this story has not convinced you that fire moss is one badass bryophyte I don't know what will. It is amazing to think that such an incredible organism is probably living out its life a stones throw away from where you are sitting right now.

Photo Credit: Ian Sutton (http://bit.ly/1LqqpMY)

Further Reading:
http://www.publish.csiro.au/?paper=BT9650303

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v489/n7416/full/nature11330.html

http://bit.ly/1U4lE2G