Mosses: Undiscovered Diversity

Bryophytes make up one of the two major groups of land plants. They are small, non-vascular plants that are divided into mosses, liverworts, and hornworts. They are the second largest group of plants in terms of diversity. In fact, according to Curator Dr. John Brinda, if you catalog the plants in any landscape, chances are that about 10% of them will be bryophytes.

The plant group, however, remains largely understudied. “We just don’t have the data to answer questions like where things are or how abundant they are,” says Dr. Brinda. “If you go out pretty much anywhere and ask ‘Which bryophyte species will be here?’ the answer that we can give you is incomplete.”

Citizen Science At Its Best

So what are bryologists to do when there’s so much still left to discover and not enough of them to do it? In addition to going out in the field themselves, one way is to ask anyone who’s already going out in nature to collect these plants and send them to a specialist to identify and catalog. And that can mean literally anyone, including casual nature explorers and experienced hikers. “It turns out that with a little bit of training, people can find very interesting things,” he says.

Enter Campylostelium laegerae, a new moss species described last year by Dr. Brinda and his colleagues Dr. David Toren and Dr. James Shevock of the California Academy of Sciences. It’s named in honor of Eve Laeger, an avid hiker in California who’s part of a group of citizen scientists that Dr. Shevock has trained to identify and collect mosses out in the field. She collected this very small and inconspicuous moss in 2006 and sent it to the California Academy of Sciences. It wasn’t until 2014 that Dr. Toren decided to consult Dr. Brinda to see if he could identify it. “He sent some to me thinking that it was similar to a species that we have in Missouri that they don’t have in California, and asked me if I could compare the two,” Dr. Brinda says. “I said, ‘It’s not that, and I don’t know what it is either!’” That led to them describing it as a new species.

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Serendipitous Find

While doing a moss survey in Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument in Arizona, Dr. Brinda had found over a dozen species that were new to the state. One of them, Campylostelium pitardii, was also described and published last year as being new to North America. It is a rare species that occurs throughout the Mediterranean region and, until Dr. Brinda’s discovery, unknown in this side of the world.

The species, however, is not unique to Arizona. During a trip to California to collect more specimens of C. laegerae, Dr. Brinda decided to look in other areas around the original collection site to see how extensive its distribution was. It was then that he stumbled upon a second population of C. pitardii. On his drive back to Missouri, he also went to Death Valley National Park hoping to find a spot with similar conditions as the ones where the original one was found. After a full day of hiking, he found it. Its discovery in these two widely separated locations suggest that it is can be considered native to North American as well. “So now we have it from two mountain ranges. It’s been there the whole time; it’s just nobody is looking for it. And that’s just how it is,” he says. “They’ve all been there since bryophytes crawled out of the ocean, but nobody is looking at them. But they’re really amazing plants.”

 

Andrea Androuais
Content Managing Editor

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