An Awesome Ophioglossum

Sometimes I wonder how I must look to casual hikers. There I was sprawled out next to the trail, focusing all of my attention on a nondescript patch of leaves poking up where the trail ended and the grass began. This wasn't just any sort of leaf though. The object of my attention was an ancient member of the fern lineage commonly referred to as an adder's tongue. I will gladly look like a weirdo if it means spending time in the presence of such a cool plant. 

To be more specific, the species in question here is the southern adder's tongue (Ophioglossum pychnostichum). Though not overtly showy like its more derived cousins, this little fern is nonetheless quite the show stopper if you know what you're looking for. It is generally considered a grassland associate and is most often encountered growing alongside trails. I'm not sure if this has to do with some disturbance related factor or the fact that even modestly sized plants can overshadow it. 

Regardless, I felt very fortunate to be in the presence of at least one reproductive individual. For much of its life, the southern adder's tongue exists as a gametophyte followed by an underground fleshy rhizome. It can exist in this state for years, being nourished solely by an obligate association with mycorrhizal fungi. When a certain energy threshold is reached, individuals will then produce a single, sterile leaf. This can go on for season after season as the fern slowly stores away nutrients. When enough energy has been stored, mature individuals can then produce a spore bearing structure called a "sporophyll." 

Despite its common name, this particular species distributed throughout the Northern Hemisphere. It can be found growing in North America, Europe, and temperate Asia. Still, since it is such a nondescript little plant, it rarely gets the attention it deserves when it comes to conservation. It is of conservation concern in at least a handful of states. Because its lifecycle can be hard to predict, growing some years and not others, accurate estimates of population size and health can be difficult.

The family to which is belongs is quite interesting on a genetic level as well. Ophioglossaceae is known for having staggeringly large chromosome counts. One species in particular - Ophioglossum reticulatum - boasts a whopping set of 1260 chromosomes. To put that into perspective, we humans only have 46. I guess thats what can happen to a genome that has had millions upon millions of years of natural selection working upon it. 

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