Floating Ferns

Not every tiny plant you see growing on the surface of ponds are duckweeds. Sometimes they are Azolla. Believe it or not, these are tiny, floating ferns! The genus Azolla is comprised of about 7 to 11 different species, all of which are aquatic. Despite being quite small they nonetheless exert a massive influence wherever they grow. 

Like all ferns, Azolla reproduce via spores. Unlike more familiar ferns, however, sexual reproduction in Azolla consists of two markedly different types of spores. When conditions are right, little structures called "sporocarps" are formed underneath the branches. These produce one of two types of sporangia. Male sporangia are small and are often referred to as microspores whereas female sporangia are, relatively speaking, quite large and are referred to as megaspores. The resulting gametophytes develop within and never truly leave their respective spores. Instead, male gameotphytes release motile sperm into the water column and female gametophytes peak out of the megaspore to intercept them. Thus, fertilization is achieved. 

Azolla are fast growing plants. Via asexual reproduction, these little floating ferns can double their biomass every 3 to 10 days. That is a lot of plant matter in a short amount of time. As such, entire water bodies quickly become smothered by a fuzzy-looking carpet. Depending on the species and the environmental conditions, the color of this carpet can range from deep green to nearly burgundy. They are able to float because of their overlapping scale-like leaves, which trap air. Below each plant hangs a set of roots. The roots themselves form a symbiotic relationship with a type of cyanobacterium, which fixes atmospheric nitrogen. Couple with their astronomic growth rate, this means that colonies of Azolla quickly reach epic proportions.

They can grow so fast that Azolla may have played a serious role in a massive global cooling event that occurred some 50 million years ago. During that time, Earth was much warmer than it is now. In fact, global temperatures were so warm that tropical species such as palms grew all the way into the Arctic. There is fossil evidence that massive blooms of Azolla mau have occurred in the Arctic Ocean during this time, which was a lot less saline than it is now. Though plenty of other factors undoubtedly played a role, it is believed that Azolla blooms would have been so large that they would have drawn down CO2 levels considerably over thousands of years. As these blooms died they sank to the sea floor, bringing with them all of the carbon they had locked up in their cells. In part, this may have led to a massive drop in atmospheric CO2 levels and a subsequent cooling period. Evidence for this is tantalizing, so much so that some researchers have taken to calling this "The Azolla Event." However, this is far from a smoking gun. Regardless, it is an important reminder than really big things often come in very small packages.

Further Reading: