Early Land Plants Made The World Muddy

Cooksonia  is one of the earliest land plants to have evolved.

Cooksonia is one of the earliest land plants to have evolved.

Try to picture the world before life moved onto land. It would have been a vastly different landscape than anything we know today. For one, there would have been no soil. Before life moved onto land, there was nothing organic around to facilitate soil formation. This would have changed as terrestrial habitats were slowly colonized by microbes and eventually plants. A recent paper published in Science is one of the first to demonstrate that the rise in certain sediments on land, specifically mud-forming clays, coincided with the rise in deep-rooted land plants.

This was no small task. The research duo had to look at thousands of reports spanning from the Archean eon, some 3.5 billion years ago, to the Carboniferous period, some 358 million years ago. By looking for the relative amounts of a sedimentary rock called mudrock in terrestrial habitats, they were able to see how the geology of terrestrial habitats was changing through time. What they found was that the presence of mudrock increased by orders of magnitude around the same time as early land plants were beginning to colonize land. Before plants made it onto land, mudrocks comprised a mere 1% of terrestrial sediments. By the end of the Carboniferous period, mudrocks had risen to 26%.

This begs the question, why are mudrocks so significant? What do they tell us about what was going on in terrestrial environments? A key to these questions lies in the composition of mudrocks themselves. Mudrock is made up of fine grained sediments like clay. There are many mechanisms by which clay can be produced and certainly this was going on well before plants made it onto the scene. The difference here is in the quantity of clay-like minerals in these sediments. Whereas bacteria and fungi do facilitate the formation of clay minerals, they do so in small quantities.

A little bit of moss goes a long way for erosion control!

A little bit of moss goes a long way for erosion control!

The real change came when plants began rooting themselves into the soil. In pushing their roots down into sediments, plants act as conduits for increased weathering of said minerals. Roots not only increase the connectivity between subsurface geology and the atmosphere, they also secrete substances like organic acids and form symbiotic relationships with cyanobacteria and fungi that accelerate the weather process. No purely tectonic or chemical processes can explain the rate of weathering that must have taken place to see such an increase in these fine grained minerals.

What's more, the presence of rooted plants on land would have ensured that these newly formed muds would have stuck around on the landscape much longer. Whereas in the absence of plants, these sediments would have been washed away into the oceans, plants were suddenly holding onto them. Plant roots act as binders, holding onto soil particles and preventing erosion. Aside from their roots, the rest of these early land plants would have also held onto sediments via a process known as the baffling effect. As water and wind pick up and move sediments, they inevitably become trapped in and around the stems and leaves of plants. Even tiny colonies of liverworts and moss are capable of doing this and entire mats of these would have contributed greatly to not only the formation of these sediments, but their retention as well.

The movement of plants onto land changed the course of history. It was the beginning of massive changes to come and much of that started with the gradual formation of soils. We owe everything to these early botanical pioneers.

Photo Credit: [1]

Further Reading: [1]

Are Algae Plants?

Haeckel_Siphoneae.jpg

I was nibbling on some nori the other day when a thought suddenly hit me. I don't know squat about algae. I know it comes in many shapes, sizes, and colors. I know it is that stuff that we used to throw at each other on the beach. I know that it photosynthesizes. That's about it. What are algae? Are they even plants?

The shortest answer I can give you is "it depends." The term algae is a bit nebulous in and of itself. In Latin, the word "alga" simply means "seaweed." Algae are paraphyletic, meaning they do not share a recent common ancestor with one another. In fact, without specification, algae may refer to entirely different kingdoms of life including Plantae (which is often divided in the broad sense, Archaeplastida and the narrow sense, Viridiplantae), Chromista, Protista, or Bacteria.

Caulerpa racemosa , a beautiful green algae.

Caulerpa racemosa, a beautiful green algae.

Taxonomy being what it is, these groupings may differ depending on who you ask. The point I am trying to make here is that algae are quite diverse from an evolutionary standpoint. Even calling them seaweed is a bit misleading as many different species of algae can be found in fresh water as well as growing on land.

Cyanobacteria are photosynthetic bacteria, not plants.

Cyanobacteria are photosynthetic bacteria, not plants.

Take for instance what is referred to as cyanobacteria. Known commonly as blue-green algae, colonies of these photosynthetic bacteria represent some of the earliest evidence of life in the fossil record. Remains of colonial blue-green algae have been found in rocks dating back more than 4 billion years. As a whole, these types of fossils represent nearly 7/8th of the history of life on this planet! However, they are considered bacteria, not plants.

Diatoms (Chromista)

Diatoms (Chromista)

Diatoms (Chromista) are another enormously important group. The single celled, photosynthetic organisms are encased in beautiful glass shells that make up entire layers of geologic strata. They comprise a majority of the phytoplankton in the world's oceans and are important indicators of climate. However, they belong to their own kingdom of life - Chromista or the brown algae.

To bring it back to what constitutes true plants, there is one group of algae that really started it all. It is widely believed that land plants share a close evolutionary history with a branch of green algae known as the stoneworts (order Charales). These aquatic, multicellular algae superficially resemble plants with their stalked appearance and radial leaflets.

A nice example of a stonewort ( Chara braunii ).

A nice example of a stonewort (Chara braunii).

It is likely that land plants evolved from a Chara-like ancestor that may have resembling modern day hornworts that lived in shallow freshwater inlets. Estimates of when this happen go back as far as 500 million years before present. Unfortunately, fossil evidence is sparse for this sort of thing and mostly comes in the form of fossilized spores and molecular clock calculations.

Porphyra umbilicalis   - One of the many species of red algae frequently referred to as nori.

Porphyra umbilicalis  - One of the many species of red algae frequently referred to as nori.

Now, to bring it back to what started me down this road in the first place. Nori is made from algae in the genus Porphyra, which is a type of Rhodophyta or red algae. Together with Chlorophyta (the green algae), they make up some of the most familiar groups of algae. They have also been the source of a lot of taxonomic debate. Recent phylogenetic analyses place the red algae as a sister group to all other plants starting with green algae. However, some authors prefer to take a broader look at the tree and thus lump red algae in a member of the plant kingdom. So, depending on the particular paper I am reading, the nori I am currently digesting may or may not be considered a plant in the strictest sense of the word. That being said, the lines are a bit blurry and frankly I don't really care as long as it tastes good.

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4]

 

Arctic Foxes: The Unintentional Gardeners

Predators are an integral component of any healthy ecosystem. Their influence can even be felt at the botanical level via what are called top-down controls. Either through direct predation or through altering their behavior, predators influence the herbivores in any system, which usually results in healthier plant communities. This method is rather indirect but new evidence shows that in the Arctic tundra, a top predator is having quite a direct influence on plant communities.

What's not to love about Arctic foxes? All anthropomorphic views aside, Arctic foxes are important predators in this ecosystem. Although the food web complexity on the tundra is largely driven by limits to plant productivity, a paper published in 2016 shows that these little canids can have profound effects on vegetation. This doesn't have to do with predation directly but rather their reproductive behavior. 

Arctic foxes live, give birth, and raise their young in underground dens. Without these subterranean homes, the foxes would be much more vulnerable to other predators as well as the harsh Arctic climate. Dens don't happen overnight either. Suitable sites are tended for generations and some dens may well be more than a century old. All this equates to a lot of activity in and around a good den site. 

With an average litter size of 8 - 10 pups per female, one can imagine the food and waste buildup must be considerable. Like all predators, Arctic fox food and waste are rich in nitrogen and phosphorus compounds, the necessary building blocks of life. Many an onlooker has noticed that, unsurprisingly, plant growth around Arctic fox dens is much more lush than on the surrounding landscape. Until recently though, such differences have hardly been quantified.

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By examining the soil and plant characteristics around Artic fox dens in Canada and comparing these data to surrounding sites without Arctic fox dens, a team of researchers put the first comprehensive numbers to the effects of Arctic foxes on tundra plant communities. They found that soils from in and around Arctic fox dens contained significantly higher levels of nitrogen and phosphorus than did the surrounding control plots. What's more, these levels varied throughout the year. In June, for instance, soil nitrogen and phosphorus levels were 71% and 1195% higher than non-den soils. These levels seemed to switch later in the summer. In August, soil nitrogen from fox dens were 242% higher and soil phosphorus levels were 191% higher.

As you can probably imagine, all of these extra nutrients caused a change in vegetation around the dens. Den sites were far more productive in terms of vegetation. The team found that, on average, Arctic fox dens supported 2.8 times more plant biomass than did the surrounding area. The authors note that these were conservative estimates and that the true values are much higher. Taken together, these results demonstrate that far from simply being top predators, Arctic foxes are true ecosystem engineers, at least on local scales. This is especially important in such a demanding ecosystem as the Arctic tundra.

Photo Credits: [1] [2]

Further Reading: [1]

Invasion of the Earthworms

As an avid gardener, amateur fisherman, and a descendant of a long line of farmers, I have always held earthworms in high regard. These little ecosystem engineers are great for all of the above, right?

Not so fast! Things in life are never that simple! Let's start at the beginning. If you live in an area of North America where the glaciers once rested, there are no native terrestrial worms in your region. All of North America's native worm populations reside in the southeast and the Pacific northwest. All other worms species were wiped out by the glaciers. This means that, for millennia, northern NoNorth America's native ecosystem has evolved without the influence of any type of worms in the soil.

Shading = Glaciers  [1]

Shading = Glaciers [1]

When Europeans settled the continent, they brought with them earthworms, specifically those known as night crawlers and red wigglers, in the ballasts of their ships. Since then, these worms have been spread all over the continent by a wide range of human activities like farming, composting, and fishing. Since their introduction, many forests have been invaded by these annelids and are now suffering quite heavily from earthworm activities.

As I said above, any areas that experienced glaciation have evolved without the influence of worms. Because of this, forests in these regions have built up a large, nutrient-rich, layer of decomposing organic material commonly referred to as "duff" or "humus." Native trees, shrubs, and forbs rely on this slowly decomposing organic material to grow. It is high in nutrients and holds onto moisture quite well. When earthworms invade an area of a forest, they disrupt this rich, organic layer in quite a serious way.

Worms break through the duff and and distribute it deeper into the soil where tree and forb species can no longer access it. Worms also pull down and speed up the decomposition of leaves and other plant materials that normally build up and slowly create this rich organic soil. Finally, earthworm castings or poop actually speed up runoff and soil erosion.

All of this leads to seriously negative impacts on native ecosystems. As leaves and other organic materials disappear into the soil at an alarming rate via earthworms, important habitat and food is lost for a myriad of forest floor organisms. In areas with high earthworm infestations, there is a significant lack of small invertebrates like copepods. The loss of these organisms has rippling effects throughout the ecosystem as well. It has been shown that, through these activities, earthworms are causing declines in salamander populations.

It gets worse too. As earthworms speed up the breakdown of the duff or humus, our native plant species are suffering. They have evolved to germinate and grow in these rich, organic soils. They rely on these soils for survival. As the nutrient rich layers get redistributed by earthworms, native plant and tree populations are suffering. There is very little recruitment and, in time, many species are lost. Our spring ephemerals have been shown to be hit the hardest by earthworm invasions. Earthworms have also been shown to upset the mycorrhizal fungi networks which most plant species cannot live without.

Top Left: Forest soil horizons without earthworms; Top Right: Forest soil mixed due to earthworms; Bottom Left: Forest understory diversity without earthworms; Bottom Right: Forest understory diversity with earthworms. Credits: [1]

So, what can we do about this? Well, for starters, avoid introducing new populations of earthworms to your neighborhood. If you are using earthworms as bait, do not dump them out onto land when you're done. If you must get rid of them, dump them into the water. Also, if you are using worm castings in your garden, it has been recommended that you freeze them for about a week to assure that no eggs or small worms survive the ride. If you are bringing new plants onto your property, make sure to check their root masses for any worm travelers. Remember, no worms are native if you live in a once glaciated region.

Sadly, there is not much we have come up with at this point for dealing with the current earthworm invasion. What few control methods have been developed are not practical on a large scale and can also be as upsetting to the native ecology as the earthworms. The best bet we have is to minimize the cases of new introductions. Earthworms are slow critters. They do not colonize new areas swiftly. In fact, studies have shown that it takes upwards of 100 years for earthworm populations to migrate 1/2 mile! Armed with new knowledge and a little attention to detail, we can at least slow their rampage.

Photo Credit: Peter Hartl

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10]

The Hunt

This week we are going on the hunt for a small member of the carrot family known as the harbinger of spring (Erigenia bulbosa). Along the way we meet a handful of interesting plant species. Will we find our quarry? Watch and find out...

Producer, Writer, Creator, Host:
Matt Candeias (www.indefenseofplants.com)

Producer, Editor, Camera:
Grant Czadzeck (www.grantczadzeck.com)

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Early Spring Botanizing

SURPRISE!

Many have commented that a video component was lacking from the hiking podcasts. I have teamed up with filmmaker/producer Grant Czadzeck (www.grantczadzeck.com) to bring you a visual botanizing experience. I'm not sure how regular this will become but let us know what you think. In the mean time, please enjoy this early spring hike in central Illinois.

Plants and Music

Turn up the music! My plants can't hear it! Okay, there goes a cheap attempt at humor... In all seriousness, I was always told as a child that plants respond to music. I have since heard many variations on the theme but basically the ideas is that plants, when exposed to music, respond with increased growth. To take things one step further, it would seem that plants have something akin to musical tastes, preferring classical to rock music.

Is there any real scientific evidence to this or is it all just a bunch of silly pseudoscience? Also, if it is true, what could possibly be going on within the plant that causes a response to music, something we thought was reserved to lifeforms with the proper sensory equipment?

The truth is, there is not much real science to base these assumptions on. The internet is full of anecdotal tales and "experiments" that hinge themselves on new age belief systems. In fact, the first "experiments" on how music influences plant growth was done by a woman named Dorothy Retallack. 

Retallack claimed that plants exposed to classical music grew vigorously whereas plants exposed to rock music languished. Considering how much heavy metal my houseplants are exposed to, I think I have more than enough evidence to say otherwise. Besides her poor experimental design, Retallack was heavily motived by quite a conservative, religious agenda. She had it out for mean old rock n' roll and was damned if she couldn't prove her point. What work has been done since Rettalack's time is tantalizing at best but from this point on, keep in mind that the jury is still out on this topic.

So, why would plants respond to music? They don't have ears or anything in their biology that would function as an auditory device, right? Let's re-frame the question in a more basic sense. What is music? Music is nothing more than organized sounds and sounds are nothing more than pressure waves, that is, disturbances in the atmosphere, a process akin to wind. Plants do, in fact, respond to wind, however, wind is a far more physical force than music. Wind can blow over entire swaths of forest whereas music cannot. What mechanism exists that could possibly explain a plant having any kind of response to music? 

Plants respond to heavy wind by growing smaller or by hugging the ground (think alpine vegetation). High winds could generally be seen as a taxing force in the plant world so why would music make plants grow taller and more vigorous? In my opinion, this idea is not a satisfying explanation. As stated above, music doesn't come close to the raw physical power of wind so there could be something else at work. 

In a study done by Margaret E. Collins and John E.K. Foreman out of the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada, they demonstrated that plants responded to different kinds of tones. The tones were either pure (without variation) or random. The results did not show any sort of negative responses from the plants, but rather the plants showed different rates of growth. Plants exposed to pure tones grew better than those exposed to random tones. 

The mechanism they hypothesized for the increased growth in pure tone plants was that the pure tones were able to move air, however slightly, around the leaf. Plants don't like stagnant air and thus, slight air movement is likely to be more beneficial. The random tones did not produce as vigorous of a response, but the plants still grew. It is possible that the random tones caused less air movement around the plants and, because of this, they did not grow as quickly.

Another explanation that seems plausible was put forth by USCB via their science line. They feel that one possible explanation is that the plants aren't the ones responding to the music, but rather the gardener. If you are listening to music while caring for your plants, then chances are it is music you enjoy. If you are like me, then music really has the power to put you in a good mood. If you are in a good mood then chances are you are more likely to take better care of your plants.

All in all, this is an interesting idea. As I said above, the results are mostly controversial and new agey. There are some tantalizing papers that have been published but their methods have been heavily scrutinized. It seems like this is one of the more popular science fair projects for kids to explore and really, anything that gets kids thinking about science and plants is a cool idea in my book. Until more hard science is done on the subject, we can't say for certain. Either way, I will continue to rock out to my favorite tunes and maybe, just maybe, my plants are benefiting from it too.

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4]

Plants May Be Piping Light to Their Roots

Plants just might be piping more than just carbohydrates down to their roots. A study published in Science Signalling offers the first evidence that plants may actually be piping light down underground. No this isn't a metaphor either.

The presence of photoreceptors in the roots has been a bit of a puzzle ever since they were identified. A handful of hypotheses have been put forth in attempt to explain their function. It has been suggested that these photoreceptors are able to sense minuscule amounts of light penetrating through the soil. However, this research suggests there is another mechanism.

A team of researchers based out of South Korea found that certain stem tissues efficiently conducted wavelengths of red light down to the roots. Now before we get too ahead of ourselves, it should be noted that these are minuscule amounts of light. It certainly isn't enough for photosynthesis. However, it is light. Detectors placed under the soil at the ends of roots confirmed that light was indeed being transmitted.

Light is conducted through the tissues in much the same way as fiber optic cables. It is likely that the affinity for red wavelengths in particular has to do with the fact that it can travel farther than other, more intense wavelengths.

By experimenting with gene expression and light exposure, the team was able to demonstrate that light being piped to the roots activates a transcription factor involved in root growth and response to gravity. When the researchers blocked the ability to transmit light they found that root growth was severely stunted. Taken together, these results suggest that not only do roots receive information regarding light conditions above ground, they also directly perceive it.

It should be noted that all of this research was done on a single species, Arabidopsis thaliana. The question remains how common this phenomenon is throughout the plant kingdom. Most plants have photoreceptors in their roots, suggesting this light-piping ability is widespread.

Photo Credit: Dr John Runions/Science Photo Library

Further Reading: [1]

Kin Selection in Plants

Apparently some plants can recognize their relatives...

The plant world is highly competitive. Since they can't move around, plant have gotten quite creative in terms of defense and competition. From brute force to chemical warfare, plants are not the static entities that most write them off as. And, while most of what we see is going on above ground, underground, things get even more crazy.

Recent evidence shows that the sea rocket (Cakile edentula) seems to be able to distinguish between plants that it shares DNA with and plants that it doesn't. According to a study done by researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, plants that grow around genetic relatives allocated less to root growth than those around non-relatives. Basically, when planted near a non-relative, the sea rocket will expand its root system to try and get the most out of its surroundings. When planted near a relative, the plant limits this expansion. So what does this mean? Well, they believe that the plants are recognizing their relation to other plants and attempting to limit the amount of competition for nutrients and water to genetically related individuals.

So, is this altruism? Not exactly. According to evolutionary geneticist John Kelly, its more along the lines of reduced antagonism. Sea rockets tend to grow in high disturbance beach habitats and because of their short lifespan they frequently self-pollinate. Their seed capsules also tend to stay on the mother plant and because of this, groups of clones tend to be found within close proximity to each other.

If they were to be as aggressive to their relatives as they would be with non-relatives, then they would be essentially competing with copies of their own DNA. From an evolutionary standpoint, preserving copies of your DNA, even in individuals other than yourself, is a boost to overall fitness. The researchers make it a point to note that, in this study, they were not looking at overall lifetime fitness of the plants in question. They do not know if reduced root mass, in this situation, incurs any positive or negative fitness to individuals overall. It should be noted that studies have shown that, at least in some plant species, reduced root mass seems to incur greater reproductive efforts. It is possible that sea rocket, in the presence of related individuals, can produce more seed.

How do the plants recognize their relation to their neighbors? The mechanism is not known at this point. My guess is that there is some form of chemical signature that the plants can recognize. How this information is processed is another story entirely. More and more we are discovering how complex the botanical world really is. According to the researchers, they feel that this type of relationship is not unique to this species alone. Research like this is opening new doors into uncharted and exciting territory.

Further Reading:
http://plants.usda.gov/java/profile?symbol=caed

http://rsbl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/3/4/435.full