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.
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.
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.
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.