Dung Moss (Revisited)

This is a revised version of a post that was originally published on January 14th, 2015. It includes excerpts from a chapter entitled, “Portrait of Splachnum,” in the book, Gathering Moss, by Robin Wall Kimmerer.

Certain plants, like corpse flowers and carrion flowers, emit foul odors when they bloom. The scent is akin to the smell of rotting flesh, hence their common names. The purpose of this repugnant act is to attract a specific group of pollinators: flies, carrion beetles, and other insects that are attracted to gross things. Though this particular strategy is rare, these aren’t the only plants that employ stinky smells to recruit such insects to aid in reproduction and dissemination. Consider dung mosses.

No moss is more fastidious in its choice of habitats than Splachnum. Absent from the usual mossy haunts, Splachnum is found only in bogs. Not among the commoners like Sphagnum that build the peaty hummocks, not along the margins of the blackwater pools. Splachnum ampullaceum occurs in one, and only one, place in the bog. On deer droppings. On white-tailed deer droppings. On white-tailed deer droppings which have lain on the peat for four weeks. In July.

At least three genera (SplachnumTetraplodon, and Tayloria) in the family Splachnaceae include species that go by the common name, dung moss. All Splachnum and Tetraplodon species and many species in the genus Tayloria are entomophilous. Entomophily is a pollination strategy in which pollen or spores are distributed by insects. Compare this to anemophily, or wind pollination, which is the common way that moss spores are distributed. In fact, dung mosses are the only mosses known to exhibit entomophily.

Dung Moss (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Dung Moss (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Before we go too much further, it’s important to understand how mosses differ from other plants. Mosses are in a group of non-vascular and non-flowering plants called bryophytes. Vascular tissues are the means by which water and nutrients are transported to and from plant parts. Lacking vascular tissues, water and nutrients are simply absorbed through the leaves and stems of mosses, which is why mosses are typically petite and prefer moist environments. Mosses also lack true roots and instead have rhizoids – threadlike structures that anchor the plants to their substrate of choice (such as dung).

Another major distinction between bryophytes and other plants is that bryophytes spend most of their life cycle as a haploid gametophyte rather than a diploid sporophyte. In most plants, the haploid gametophytes are the sperm (pollen) and egg cells; the sporophyte is everything else. In mosses, the familiar green, leafy structure is actually the gametophyte. The gametophyte houses sperm and egg cells, and when the egg is fertilized by sperm it forms a zygote that develops into the sporophyte structure which extends above the leafy gametophyte. A capsule at the top of the sporophyte contains spores which are eventually released and, upon finding themselves on a suitable substrate in a hospitable environment, germinate to produce new plants. The spore then is comparable to a seed in vascular, seed-bearing plants.

photo credit: wikimedia commons

photo credit: wikimedia commons

As stated earlier, the spores of most mosses are distributed by wind. Dung mosses, on the other hand, employ flies in the distribution of their spores. They attract the flies by emitting scents that only flies can love from an area on the capsule of the sporophyte called the apophysis. This area is often enlarged and brightly colored in yellow, magenta, or red, giving it a flower-like appearance which acts as a visual attractant. The smells emitted vary depending on the type of substrate a particular species of dung moss inhabits. Some dung mosses grow on the dung of herbivores and others on the dung of carnivores. Some even prefer the dung of a particular group of animals; for example, a population of Tetraplodon fuegiensis was found to be restricted to the feces and remains of foxes. However, dung is not the only material that dung mosses call home. Certain species grow on rotting flesh, skeletal remains, or antlers.

Splachnum ampullaceum inhabits the droppings of white-tailed deer. Had a wolf or coyote followed the scent of the deer into the bog, its droppings would been colonized by S. luteum. The chemistry of carnivore dung is sufficiently distinct from that of herbivores to support a different species. … Moose droppings have their own loyal follower. The family to which Splachnum belongs includes several other mosses with an affinity for animal nitrogen. Tetraplodon and Tayloria can be found on humus, but primarily inhabit animal remains such as bones and owl pellets. I once found an elk skull lying beneath a stand of pines, with the jawbone tufted with Tetraplodon.

Yellow Moosedung Moss (Splachnum luteum) has one of the largest and showiest sporophytes. (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Yellow moosedung moss (Splachnum luteum) has one of the largest and showiest sporophytes. (photo credit: www.eol.org)

The set of circumstances that converge to bring Splachnum into the world is highly improbable. Ripening cranberries draw the doe to the bog. She stands and grazes with ears alert, flirting with the risk of coyotes. Minutes after she has paused, the droppings continue to steam. … The droppings send out an invitation written in wafting molecules of ammonia and butyric acid. Beetles and bees are oblivious to this signal, and go on about their work. But all over the bog, flies give up their meandering flights and antennae quiver in recognition. Flies cluster on the fresh droppings and lap up the salty fluids that are beginning to crystallize on the surface of the pellets. Gravid females probe the dung and insert glistening white eggs down into the warmth. Their bristles leave behind traces from their earlier foraging trips among the day’s dung, delivering spores of Splachnum on their footprints.

The spores of dung mosses are small and sticky. When a fly visits these plants, the spores adhere to its body in clumps. The fly then moves on to its substrate of choice to lay its eggs, and the spores are deposited where they can germinate and grow into new moss plants. Flies that visit dung mosses receive nothing in return for doing so, but instead are simply “tricked” into disseminating the propagules. The story is similar with corpse flowers and carrion flowers; flies are drawn in by the smells and recruited to transmit pollen while receiving no nectar reward for their work.

There are 73 species in the Splachnaceae family, and nearly half of these species are dung mosses. Most are found in temperate habitats in both the northern and southern hemispheres, with a few species occurring in the mountains of subtropical regions. They can be found in both wet and relatively dry habitats. Dung mosses are generally fast growing but short lived, with some lasting only about 2 years. It isn’t entirely clear how and why mosses in this family evolved to become entomophilous, but one major benefit of being this way is that their spores are reliably deposited on suitable habitat.

Since Splachnum can grow only on droppings, and nowhere else, the wind cannot be trusted with dispersal. Escape of the spores is successful only if they have both a means of travel and a reserved ticket for a particular destination. In the monotonous green of the bog, flies are attracted to the cotton candy colors of Splachnum, mistaking them for flowers. Rooting about in the moss for non-existent nectar the flies become coated with the sticky spores. When the scent of fresh deer droppings arrives on the breeze, the flies seek it out and leave Splachnum-coated footprints in the steaming dung.

Sporophytes of Splachnum vasculosum (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Sporophytes of Splachnum vasculosum (photo credit: www.eol.org)

References

Koponen, A. 2009. Entomophily in the Splachnaceae. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 104: 115-127.

Marino, P., R. Raguso, and B. Goffinet. 2009. The ecology and evolution of fly dispersed dung mosses (Family Splachnaceae): Manipulating insect behavior through odour and visual cues. Symbiosis 47: 61-76.

Grasshoppers – More Friend Than Foe?

Major outbreaks of grasshoppers can be devastating. A plague of locusts of biblical proportions can decimate crop fields and rangelands in short order. Clouds of grasshoppers moving in and devouring every plant in sight makes it easy to see why these insects are often seen as pests. Even small groups of them can do significant damage to a garden or farm. Yet, grasshoppers and their relatives have great ecological value and are important parts of healthy ecosystems. Love them or hate them, they are an essential piece of a bigger picture.

Grasshoppers are in the order Orthoptera, an order that includes katydids, crickets, wetas, and a few other familiar and not so familiar insects. Worldwide, there are more than 27,000 species of orthopterans. These insects mostly feed on plants; many are omnivorous while others are exclusively herbivorous. They are most commonly found in open, sunny, dry habitats like pastures, meadows, disturbed sites, open woods, prairies, and crop fields. Most insects in this order are fairly large, making them easy to identify; yet they don’t seem to receive the same level of human attention that charismatic insects like bees and butterflies do. In Field Guide to Grasshoppers, Katydids, and Crickets of the United States, the authors defend this diverse group of insects: “Grasshoppers often are thought of as modest-looking brown or green insects, but many species in this family are brightly colored, and some of the most dull-colored species rival butterflies in beauty when they spread their wings in flight.”

photo credit: wikimedia commons

photo credit: wikimedia commons

The voracious appetite of grasshoppers and their preference for plants can influence ecosystems in many ways. Certain plants may be favored over others, which affects the diversity and distribution of plant communities. Grasses are a particular favorite, despite being high in hard to digest compounds like lignin, cellulose, and silica. As grasshoppers consume vegetation – up to their body weight per day – digested materials return to the soil where soil dwelling organisms continue to break them down. In this way, grasshoppers and their relatives are major contributors to nutrient cycling. Returning nutrients to the soil results in increased nutrient availability for future plant growth. In fact, one grassland study found that despite short-term losses via grasshopper herbivory, plant growth was enhanced in the long-term due in part to accelerated nutrient cycling.

Because grasshoppers are such prolific consumers, their robust bodies are loaded with nutritious proteins and fats, making them a preferred food source for higher animals. Reptiles, raccoons, skunks, foxes, mice, and numerous species of birds regularly consume grasshoppers and related species. While many adult birds feed mostly on seeds and fruits, they seek out insects and worms to feed their young. Nutrient-packed grasshoppers are an excellent food source for developing birds. Humans in many parts of the world also find grasshoppers and crickets to be a tasty part of their diet.

Grasshoppers provide food for other invertebrates as well. The aforementioned field guide refers to the fate of grasshoppers and certain species of blister beetles as being “intimately linked,” because the larvae of these blister beetles feed exclusively on grasshopper eggs. Several species of flies and other insects, as well as spiders, also feed on grasshoppers and other orthopterans.

grasshopper on blade of grass

In short, grasshoppers play prominent roles in plant community composition, soil nutrient cycling, and the food chain. When grasshopper populations reach plague proportions, their impact is felt in other ways. From a human perspective, the damage is largely economic. However, their ability to thoroughly remove vegetation across large areas can be environmentally devastating as well, particularly when it comes to soil erosion and storm water runoff. The USDA’s Agriculture Research Service considers grasshoppers “among the most economically important pests” and cites research estimating that they are responsible for destroying as much as 23% of available range forage in the western United States annually. A paper published in the journal, Psyche, references a period between 2003-2005 in Africa where locusts were responsible for farmers losing as much as 80 to 100% of their crops.

This level of devastation is relatively rare. In Garden Insects of North America, Whitney Cranshaw states that of the more than 550 species of grasshoppers that occur in North America, “only a small number regularly damage gardens…almost all of these are in the genus Melanoplus.” Like most large, diverse groups of organisms, many grasshopper species are abundant and thriving while others are rare and threatened. Human activity has benefited certain species of grasshoppers while jeopardizing others. In general, grasshopper populations vary wildly from year to year depending on a slew of environmental factors.

Differential grasshopper (Melanoplus differentialis) - one of the four grasshoppers that Whitney Cranshaw lists as "particularly injurious" in his book Garden Insects of North America. (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Differential grasshopper (Melanoplus differentialis) – one of the four grasshoppers that Whitney Cranshaw lists as “particularly injurious” in his book Garden Insects of North America. (photo credit: www.eol.org)

A plague or outbreak of grasshoppers is a poorly understood phenomenon. It seems there are too many factors at play to pin such an occasion on any one thing. Warm, sunny, dry weather seems to favor grasshopper growth and reproduction, so drought conditions over a period of years can result in a dramatic increase in grasshopper populations. But drought can also limit plant growth, reducing the grasshoppers’ food supply. Natural enemies – which grasshoppers have many – also come into play. It seems that just the right conditions have to be met for an outbreak to occur – a seemingly unlikely scenario, but one that occurs frequently enough to cause concern.

Grasshoppers and fellow orthopterans are fascinating insects, and their place in the world is worth further consideration. For an example of just how compelling such insects can be, here is a story about crickets from Doug Tallamy’s book, Bringing Nature Home:

“Male tree crickets in the genus Oecanthus attempt to lure females to them by making chirping songs with their wings. The loudest male attracts the most females, so males often cheat a bit by positioning themselves within a cup-shaped leaf that amplifies the song beyond what the male can make without acoustical help. Each male chews a hole in the center of his cupped leaf that is just large enough to accommodate his raised wings during chirping. This ensures that the sound projects directly from the center of the parabolic leaf for maximum amplification.

Related Awkward Botany Posts:

Our Urban Planet

As the human population balloons and cities sprawl, ecological studies in urban areas are following suit. Nature has always been a component of cities – we can’t escape it after all, as hard as we may try – but urban nature (and the enhancement of it) has become increasingly important as the human species continues to urbanize. More and more we are seeing the importance of melding the built environment with the natural one. Our motivations are diverse – albeit largely anthropocentric. But that’s fine. As we make improvements to the live-ability of cities for human’s sake, other living beings benefit. We are finding ways to get along with our neighbors, and we are learning to appreciate and value them as well.

Since 2008, the world’s urban population has outnumbered its rural population, and it is predicted that by 2050, more than two-thirds of humans will be urbanites. Immense resources are required to support such large, concentrated populations, and most of these resources are produced outside of urban areas. This results in an ecological footprint that is significantly larger than the city itself. Additionally, waste and pollution produced within cities negatively effects surrounding areas and beyond in abundant ways.

st louis

In May of this year, Science put out a special issue entitled, “Urban Planet,” which features a series of articles that address some of the latest research in urban ecology and discuss current developments and future research needs – a sort of state of the union address for urban ecology in 2016. A series of 13 articles covered diverse topics including city-integrated renewable energy, innovative solutions to water challenges, transportation and air pollution, and food security in an urban world. Rodent-borne diseases in urban slums, creating sustainable cities in China, and Vancouver’s push to become the “greenest city” were also features of this special issue.

The issue serves to highlight the importance of this field of study and the urgency there is in finding solutions to major environmental challenges. But it also offers hope. Bright minds are working towards solutions to this century’s biggest problems as we look towards a more sustainable future. The introduction emphasizes that “the rise of cities is not…all doom and gloom.” Urbanization has upsides: “consolidating human populations helps shrink our individual environmental footprints, and cities are serving as living laboratories for further improvements.”

Urban ecology is a relatively recent subfield of ecology. In The Ecological Future of Cities, Mark McDonnell and Ian MacGregor-Fors describe how it “arose in the 1990’s out of a need to increase our…understanding of the ecological and human dimensions of urban ecosystems.” Initially the field was mainly concerned with biodiversity and the ecosystem processes and services found within cities. Findings from these studies are now influencing urban planning, design, and management. Such decisions are also informed by more recent studies in the field of urban ecology, which has grown to include “issues of sustainability, environmental quality, and human well-being in urban ecosystems.”

The authors note that our ecological understanding of cities was waylaid because “nature within cites was long considered unworthy of study, except when it involved solving environmental problems that threatened human well-being.” Cities were perceived as unnatural because humans had “disrupt[ed] the natural ecological conditions and processes that scientists [were] attempting to understand.” Today, ecologists recognize that studies in the field of urban ecology help us better understand basic ecological principles, while also providing “valuable information for creating liveable, healthy, and resilient urban environments.”

Studies in urban ecology have also increased our understanding of the mechanisms involved in evolution and adaptation. To illustrate this, the authors offer examples of birds that modified their songs “to communicate at noisy locations” and plants that shifted their seed dispersal strategies to survive in “highly fragmented urban habitats.” The authors also highlight the importance of maintaining or restoring natural vegetation in urban areas in order to help preserve struggling species of plants and animals, citing a study that found that “fewer local plant extinctions occurred in cities that maintained at least 30% native vegetation cover.” Additionally, the authors note that “the scope of urban ecology research extends well beyond city limits,” since urbanization is partly to blame for numerous environmental issues including habitat loss and fragmentation, biodiversity loss, climate change, and invasive species.

In Living in Cities, Naturally, Terry Hartig and Peter Kahn, Jr. address the topic of mental health and urban living. While there is still much to learn about the relationship between the two, it is generally believed that viewing or spending time in nature can help improve one’s mental well-being. As the authors put it, “parks and green spaces” can be viewed as “health resources for urban populations,” and including natural areas and natural processes in the design and creation of cities is necessary “for psychological as well as ecological purposes.”

Green roofs

Green roofs are one way to add green space to urban areas. They help replace vegetation that was removed when buildings were constructed, and they offer numerous environmental benefits.

Interacting with nature in an urban setting can help people develop positive feelings about the natural world and may encourage support for environmental protection. The authors worry that if future generations grow up without an intimate connection to the natural world, elevated amounts of environmental degradation will be seen as normal and a feeling of urgency to protect the environment from continued degradation will fade. This is why including plentiful amounts of green space within cities is essential: “Providing opportunities for people to experience more robust, healthy, and even wilder forms of nature in cities offers an important solution to this collective loss of memory and can counter the shifting baseline.”

This special issue of Science highlights some of the current ecological and environmental research regarding urbanization. For a great introductory look at urban ecology and basic ecological principles, check out the book, Nature All Around Us. Also, expect to see many more urban ecology themed posts on Awkward Botany. Tell your friends.

What’s in a Packet of Wildflower Seeds? – An Introduction

Occasionally I receive packets of wildflower seeds from companies that are not in the business of growing plants. They are promotional items – encouraging people to plant flowers while simultaneously marketing their wares. Often the seed packet lacks a list of the seeds included in the mix, and so it remains unclear what “wildflowers” are actually in there. My guess is that most seed packets like this go unplanted, and those that do get planted, may go uncared for. After all, the company that supplied them isn’t all that concerned about what gets done with them anyway.

As it is, generic packets of wildflower seeds like this may not actually contain any wildflower seeds. The term wildflower generally refers to a flowering plant that grows in the wild and was not intentionally planted by humans. It is synonymous with native plant, but it can also refer to non-native plants that have become naturalized. By this definition, a packet of wildflower seeds should only include seeds of native or naturalized plants and should not include horticultural selections, hybrids, or cultivated varieties. Ideally, the seed mix would be specific to a particular region, as each region throughout the world has its own suite of native wildflowers.

With that in my mind, I was immediately curious about an unlabeled packet of wildflower seeds I recently received as a promotional item from a company that has nothing to do with plants. This is a company that ships items nationwide and around the world, which leads me to believe that hundreds of people received similar packets of seeds around the same time I did. The seed packet is not labeled for a particular region, so all of us likely received a similar mix of seeds. “Wildflowers” then, at least in this case, means a random assortment of flowering plants with questionable provenance and no sense of geographic location.

The seed packet in question.

The seed packet in question.

Curiousity is killing me; so I am determined to find out what is in this mysterious packet of seeds. Using a pair of magnifying glasses, I seperated the seeds into 26 groups. Each group, from as best as I can tell, should be a unique species (or at least from the same genus). The next step will be to grow the seeds out and see what they actually are. I have limited space and time, so this is going to take a while. Since “wildflower” is not an exact term, I have decided that in order to be considered a wildflower the plant will have to be native to North America. (I should probably say western North America or Intermountain West, since that is where I am located, but that’s pushing it.)

The amount of seeds that each of the 26 groups consists of varies greatly, from a single seed to 52 seeds. Some of the seeds may not be viable, and some of the seedlings are sure to perish along the way. Despite losses, it should be clear in the end what this packet of seeds mainly consists of and whether or not it is indeed a wildflower seed mix. If I were skilled at identifying species simply by observing their seeds, I might be able to avoid growing them out, but I am not confident enough to do that. However, one group of seeds is almost certainly calendula. Calendula is a genus native to parts of Asia, Europe, and North Africa that has been introduced to North America. So, we’re already off to a bad start.

seed packets_experiment

To be clear, I have no intention of disclosing or calling out the company that sent the seeds. This is all in good fun. No hard feelings. I’m satisfying my own curiosity, and perhaps yours, too. Until the next update (which could be a while), go run through a field of wildflowers. Enjoy yourself.

Drought Tolerant Plants: The Yarrows

Few plants are as ubiquitous and widespread as the common yarrow, Achillea millefolium. A suite of strategies have made this plant highly successful in a wide variety of habitats, and it is a paragon in terms of reproduction. Its unique look, simple beauty, and tolerance of tough spots have made it a staple in many gardens; however, its hardiness, profuseness, and bullish behavior have also earned it the title, “weed.” Excess water encourages this plant to spread, but in a dry garden it tends to stay put (or at least remain manageable), which is why it and several of its cousins are often included in or recommended for water efficient landscapes.

Achillea millefolium - common yarrow

Achillea millefolium – common yarrow

Common yarrow is in the aster family (Asteraceae) and is one of around 85 species in the genus Achillea. It is distributed throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. European plants have long been introduced to North America, and hybridization has occurred many times among the two genotypes.

Yarrow begins as a small rosette of very finely dissected leaves that are feathery or fern-like in appearance. These characteristic leaves explain its specific epithet, millefolium, and common names like thousand-leaf. Slightly hairy stems with alternately arranged leaves arise from the rosettes and are capped with a wide, flat-topped cluster of tightly-packed flowers. The flower stalks can be less than one foot to more than three feet tall. The flowers are tiny, numerous, and consist of both ray and disc florets. Flowers are usually white but sometimes pink.

The plants produce several hundred to several thousand seeds each. The seeds are enclosed in tiny achene-like fruits which are spread by wind and gravity. Yarrow also spreads and reproduces rhizomatously. Its roots are shallow but fibrous and abundant, and they easily spread horizontally through the soil. If moisture, sun, and space are available, yarrow will quickly expand its territory. Its extensive root system and highly divided leaves, which help reduce transpiration rates, are partly what gives yarrow the ability to tolerate dry conditions.

john eastman

Illustration of Achillea millifolium by Amelia Hansen from The Book of Field and Roadside by John Eastman, which has an excellent entry about yarrow.

Common yarrow has significant wildlife value. While its pungent leaves are generally avoided by most herbivorous insects, its flowers are rich in nectar and attract bees, butterflies, beetles, flies, and even mosquitoes. Various insects feed on the flowers, and other insects visit yarrow to feed on the insects that are feeding on the plant. Despite its bitterness, the foliage is browsed by a variety of birds, small mammals, and deer. Some birds use the foliage in constructing their nests. Humans have also used yarrow as a medicinal herb for thousands of years to treat a seemingly endless list of ailments.

Yarrow’s popularity as an ornamental plant has resulted in the development of numerous cultivars that have a variety of flower colors including shades of pink, red, purple, yellow, and gold. While Achillea millefolium may be the most widely available species in its genus, there are several other drought-tolerant yarrows that are also commercially available and worth considering for a dry garden.

Achillea filipendulina, fern-leaf yarrow, is native to central and southwest Asia. It forms large, dense clusters of yellow-gold flowers on stalks that reach four feet high. Its leaves are similar in appearance to A. millefolium. Various cultivars are available, most of which have flowers that are varying shades of yellow or gold.

Achillea alpina, Siberian yarrow, only gets about half as tall as A. filipendulina. It occurs in Siberia, parts of Russia, China, Japan, and several other Asian countries. It also occurs in Canada. Unlike most other species in the genus, its leaves have a glossy appearance and are thick and somewhat leathery. Its flowers are white to pale violet. A. alpina is synonymous with A. sibirica, and ‘Love Parade’ is a popular cultivar derived from the subspecies camschatica.

Achillea x lewisii ‘King Edward,’ a hybrid between A. tomentosa (woolly yarrow) and A. clavennae (silvery yarrow), stays below six inches tall and forms a dense mat of soft leaves that have a dull silver-gray-green appearance. Its compact clusters of flowers are pale yellow to cream colored. Cultivars of A. tomentosa are also available.

Achillea ptarmica, a European native with bright white flowers, and A. ageritafolia, a native of Greece and Bulgaria that is low growing with silvery foliage and abundant white flowers can also be found in the horticulture trade along with a handful of others. Whatever your preferences are, there is a yarrow out there for you. Invasiveness and potential for escape into natural areas should always be a concern when selecting plants for your garden, especially when considering a plant as robust and successful as yarrow. That in mind, yarrow should make a great addition to nearly any drought-tolerant, wildlife friendly garden.

More Drought Tolerant Plants Posts:

Rare and Endangered Plants: Texas Wild Rice

Some plants have native ranges that are so condensed that a single major disturbance has the potential to wipe them out of existence completely. They are significantly more vulnerable to change than neighboring plant species, and for this reason they often find themselves on endangered species lists. Zizania texana is one of those plants. Its range was never large to begin with, and due to increased human activity it now finds itself on the brink of extinction.

Zizania texana is one of three species of wild rice found in North America. The other two, Z. palustris and Z. aquatica, enjoy much broader ranges. Both of these species were once commonly harvested and eaten by humans. Today, Z. palustris is the most commercially available of the two. Commonly known as Texas wild rice, Z. texana, was not recognized as distinct from the other two Zizania species until 1932.

Herbarium voucher of Texas wild rice (Zizania texana) - photo credit: University of Texas Herbarium

Herbarium voucher of Texas wild rice (Zizania texana) – photo credit: University of Texas Herbarium

Texas wild rice is restricted to the headwaters of the San Marcos River in Central Texas. The river originates from a spring that rises from the Edwards Aquifer. It is a mere 75 miles long, but is home to copious amounts of wildlife, including several rare and endangered species. Before the 1960’s, Texas wild rice was an abundant species found along several miles of the San Marcos River. Its population and range has since been greatly reduced, and the native population is now limited to about 1200 square meters within the first two miles of the river.

Texas wild rice is an aquatic grass with long, broad leaves that remains submerged in the clear, flowing, spring-fed water of the river until it is ready to flower. Flower heads rise above the water, and each flower spike consists of either male or female flowers. The flowers are wind pollinated, but research has revealed that the pollen does not travel far and does not remain viable for very long. If a male flower is further than about 30 inches away from a female flower, the pollen generally fails to reach the stigma. The plants also reproduce asexually by tillering, but plants produced this way are genetically identical to the parent plant.

As people settled in the area around San Marcos Springs and began altering the river for their own use, Texas wild rice had to put up with a series of assaults and dramatic changes, including increased sediment and nutrient loads, variations in water depth and speed, trampling, and mechanical and chemical removal of the plant itself. Sexual reproduction became more difficult. In his book, Enduring Seeds, Gary Paul Nabhan describes one scenario: “streamflow had been increased to the extent that the seedheads, which were formerly raised a yard above the water, [were] now constantly being pummeled by the current so that they [remained] submerged, incapable of sexual reproduction.”

San Marcos, Texas – where the headwaters of the San Marcos River is located and where Texas wild rice has long called its home – is the location of Texas State University and is part of the Greater Austin metropolitan area. Thus, Zizania texana now finds itself confined to a highly urbanized location. The San Marcos Springs and River are regularly used for recreation, which leads to increased sediments, pollution, and trampling. Introduced plant species compete with Texas wild rice, and introduced waterfowl and aquatic rodents consume it. In this new reality, sexual reproduction will remain a major challenge, and a return to its original population size seems veritably impossible.

Texas wild rice (Zizania texana) and its urbanized habitat - photo credit: The Edwards Aquifer

Texas wild rice (Zizania texana) and its urbanized habitat – photo credit: The Edwards Aquifer

Attempts have and are being made to maintain the species in cultivation and to reintroduce it to its original locations, but its habitat has been so drastically altered that it will need constant management and attention for such efforts to be successful. As Nabham puts it, it is a species that has “little left of [its] former self in the wild – it is a surviving species in name more than in behavior…The wildness has been squeezed out of Texas rice.”

What if humans had stayed out of it? Would a plant with such a limited range and such difficulty reproducing sexually persist for any great length of time? It’s hard to say. If it disappears completely, what consequences will there be? It is known to provide habitat for the fountain darter, an endangered species of fish, as well as several other organisms; however, the full extent of its ecological role remains unclear. It will be nursed along by humans for the foreseeable future, but it may never regain its full glory. It is a species teetering on the edge of extinction, simultaneously threatened and cared for by humans – a story shared by so many other species around the world.

Additional Resources:

Lichen-eating Reindeer vs. Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster

Earlier this year I wrote about a lichen that was named after President Barack Obama in which I included a brief introduction to lichens. They are fascinating organisms that are actually two organisms in one – a fungus and an algae or cyanobacteria. They are not plants, but are often appreciated by plant enthusiasts, probably due to their plant-like appearances and behaviors and because they commonly associate with plants. Lichens have great ecological importance and are regularly used by a variety of animals for food and shelter. Their sensitivity to air pollution and acid rain is well documented, which brings me to a more tragic story about lichens.

As Heloise Rheault puts it in the book, Nature All Around Us, “Lichens live essentially from the light and water they obtain directly from their environment. Because they have no way to regulate or filter these resources, they directly absorb all particles suspended in the air and in rain, including all pollutants.” Absorbing enough pollutants over time can lead to the death of lichens, which is why researchers can use the presence or absence of lichens to map polluted areas. Lichens that have absorbed high levels of pollutants might also be eaten by animals, which moves these toxic substances up the food chain.

On April 26, 1986, the world’s worst nuclear disaster occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in what at the time was the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. An explosion and fire completely destroyed one of the reactors and sent massive amounts of radioactive particles into the atmosphere. The radioactive fallout quickly spread across western USSR and Europe. Areas in close proximity obviously suffered the most dramatic effects of the explosion, but effects were also felt hundreds of miles away.

One distant area where effects were felt was Lapland, a region in northern Finland where the Sami people have lived for thousands of years. Lapland is about 2300 kilometers (1430 miles) north of Chernobyl, yet the fallout was detected shortly after the blast. Due to atmospheric nuclear weapons testing, regular monitoring of radiation levels in Lapland and the surrounding areas had been taking place long before the Chernobyl disaster. In Lapland, studies were focused on radiocesium concentrations in lichens and reindeer. Lichens are the main food source for reindeer during the winter when little else is available, and reindeer are regularly consumed by the Sami people. Threatened by fallout from Chernobyl, monitoring intensified in the area.

Reindeer in Lapland, Finland (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Reindeer in Lapland, Finland (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

A report published in Rangifer in 1990 summarized results of sampling that was carried out in Lapland in 1986 – 1987. Hundreds of samples were taken from three species of lichens in the genus Cladonia (C. stellaris, C. mitis, and C. rangiferina). These species were selected because they are “the most important ground lichen species used as winter fodder by the reindeer.” Thousands of samples were also taken from the meat of slaughtered reindeer during this period. Researchers found that higher radiocesium concentrations in lichens within the sampling area correlated with higher radiocesium concentrations in reindeer within the same area. The test results were used to determine “whether the meat could be delivered for consumption or not.”

The researchers also found that contamination of the reindeer meat varied depending on when the reindeer were slaughtered. They determined that “lichens contain higher amounts of [radiation] activity than other forage,” so in the fall after the reindeer had spent the summer eating tree leaves and other plant material, “the activity concentration in the meat decreases rapidly.” Harvesting the reindeer from December through March, after they had spent the winter eating mostly lichens, resulted in meat with higher radiocesium concentrations.

Star reindeer lichen (Cladonia stallaris) - researchers found that the concentrations of radioactivity in this species of lichen was unevenly distributed in that "the top layer of the lichen was twice the concentration of the middle layer." (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Star reindeer lichen (Cladonia stellaris) – Researchers found that the concentration of radioactivity in this species of lichen was unevenly distributed, in that “the top layer of the lichen was twice the concentration of the middle layer.” (photo credit: www.eol.org)

An article published in the New York Times in September 1986 told a similar story. Laplanders in Sweden lamented that 97% of the first 1000 reindeer slaughtered so far that fall “measured in excess of permissible radiation levels and [were] declared unfit for human consumption.” The reindeer had spent the summer browsing “vegetation watered by the nuclear rains,” including “rain-sopped renlav lichen savored by the deer.” This was the first year of many in which contaminated meat would have to be disposed off. The article reports on the concerns of the Sami people that “their way of life is slipping into an irradiated limbo,” especially considering that the worst of the contamination has a half-life of 30 years and “the affected lichen will linger for a decade.” A paper published in the Journal of Environmental Radioactivity in 2005 reported that high levels of radioactivity were still being detected in this region’s “soil – plant/lichen – reindeer food chain” in the late 1990’s.

This is, of course, only one of many tragic and horrendous results of the Chernobyl disaster. Even now, 30 years after the event, effects are still being felt and clean up is ongoing.

Additional Resources: