Category Archives: Moss

Forest on Whidbey Island, Washington

An empire of moss and broadsword ferns. Douglas fir trees bend the sea wind. Reams of gold leaf — bigleaf maple — drop through thickets of hemlock and cedar.

Kinglets hammer the forest’s ceiling with sharp brads of sound. Then they drop, working the ferns. Ten of them, right here: hazed wings and stone-bright eyes. Sulfur headstripes; bright, they slice open the heavy green drapes.

Wads of old leaf caught in maple tree crotches, rotted mats lodged inside sprays of alder twigs. Seedlings take root there, above our heads. The soil’s upper boundary is fogged. In walking, we worm through soil passages, burrows of air.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Microsafari: Bear hunting

I spent much of Saturday on a trip organized by the Sewanee Herbarium, led by Paul Davison from the University of North Alabama. In addition to being a botanical expert, Paul is a master of finding the “wee beasties” (a phrase used by the pioneering microscopist Van Leeuwenhoek) that surround us: the micro-world of single-celled protists and tiny animals, all existing just beyond the limits of our vision. But, with some simple equipment and a hand lens or microscope, this world opens up for us. About 24 people came on the trip, a good mix of Sewanee biology students and faculty, along with community members.

Paul Davsion discussing the "pin cushion" moss, Leucobryum.

Curious structures growing in the Leucobryum moss: undescribed in the North American literature, apparently. Perhaps micro-male mosses growing within the larger female parts of the plant (the Archegonia, for lovers of botanico-jargon).

Leafy liverworts creeping across tree trunks.

Seen close, the alternating scale-like flaps (not true leaves) of the liverwort are visible.

After a foray into Lost Cove, we returned to the lab to pull open the door to another world (amazingly, also the same world) by looking at critters under microscopes. We found legions of algal cells, whizzing crustacea, lumbering protists, and gliding flatworms.

By holding my camera up to the microscope lens, I snapped a few shots of a couple of my favorites.

A rotifer, or "wheel animal". Its head is pointing down and its rear end is clasping some dead plant material (aka crud). the two Mickey Mouse ears are ciliated (cilia = hairs that stir the water) feeding devices, moving food into the mouth.

A close look at this shot shows the grinding pharynx that pulverizes food as it moves through the gut (look for the round structure to the left of the "60" mark).

Commercial break: go buy Apple products. Chris Waldrup sent me this photo that he took through the scope with his iPhone. Pretty darn good. Yes, I want one.

Now for the bear: this is a tardigrade, also called "waterbear" or "moss piglet" (with some crud to the left and below -- the waterbear is at the top). It was indeed living in some moss. They have eight little legs and amble along like bears. This one is stranded on its back with its front legs pointing to the left and its hose-like mouth just visible. Don't let the rolly-poly cuteness fool you: these are the toughest animals in the world, able to enter suspended animation and survive the deepest cold imaginable, vacuums, radiation blasts, utter dryness for years, and exposure to temperatures above the boiling point of water.

Tardigrade feet, equipped with claws for clinging to their mossy homes. They'll still be hanging on when Homo sapiens has turned to a layer of dust in the geological column. So far, tardigrades have been around for 600 million years. Modern humans, less than one tenth of one percent of that.

Thank you, Paul Davison, for leading the hunt. Thank you also to Jon Evans and Mary Priestley for organizing the event.

Revival (no tent please)

Air from the Gulf of Mexico has come for a visit, bringing warmth, rain, and ever-changing clouds. I took this shot yesterday morning before walking into Shakerag Hollow.

As wet air hits the slopes, it gets pushed up and cooled, making low-hanging clouds that rise and fall slowly, dipping us into and out of the fog.

Mosses and lichens love this weather. No tree canopy interferes with their feeding (there is now more light on the ground than in mid-summer) and the gentle rains moisten, plump, and revive them.

They seem ignited, hungry for light. I could dive into their green: alive!

In the heavy rain, I briefly took shelter under a rock overhang.

Another species had done the same last summer. This is the old nest of a phoebe, tucked into the back wall. It is lined with dried moss, perhaps plucked from the same clumps of moss that I had been admiring in the forest.

I enjoy a brief soaking in warm rain (is this January?), but Junebug says that the raindrops hurt her eyeballs…



An unassuming patch of bare soil, next to the trail:

On closer inspection:

…about a dozen exquisite little moss plants, each growing as a solitary spike.

The tufts at the base of each spike are the photosynthetic “leaves” (mosses don’t have “true” leaves with stems and veins, just flattened leaflets). The swelling at the tip is the “shaker” from which spores are dispersed.

I don’t know the name of this species. But, it is surely one of the species that specializes on colonizing freshly bared ground. These little patches of habitat don’t last long, so the mosses grow just a small tuft of greenery, then put out their spore-shakers — moving on to the next open ground before their little patch gets swallowed up by other plants. Other moss species, like the one shown below that I found a couple of days ago on another trail, grow thick mats of greenery and stay put, digging in for the long run. They tend to grow on rock, where the competition isn’t so tough.

Deck the… lab walls

My colleague, Jon Evans, asks students in his Plant Systematics and Evolution class to produce a holiday wreath at the end of the semester. Their challenge: to build an attractive wreath using as many plant species as possible. Sewanee’s 13,000 acres have no shortage of plants to select from, over one thousand species at last count (of course, no rare species find their way into the wreaths).

The wreaths are hung on the walls in Spencer Hall, giving us all a nice boost as we work on final exams.

Luckily, the Microbiology class has chosen not to mount their ripe petri dishes on the adjoining walls.

Dick Cove

My Field Investigations in Biology class ventured into the old growth forest in Dick Cove (aka Thumping Dick Hollow, apparently named for a former inhabitant who built an ingenious corn-pounding device). In addition to measuring trees to quantify how the forest community is changing, we found some interesting creatures in the undergrowth.

First question, thanks to Ruffin: can you spot the animal?

Camouflage on leaves

How about now, when it sits on a rock?

Spring peeper, Pseudacris crucifer. The scientific name derives from the cross on the animal's back.

Another cryptic creature, this time an unknown Hemipteran bug:

...and Mary demonstrates how to "picture-bomb."

Allie found an archaeological artifact (or, trash, depending on your perspective). After some debate, we left it in place. The mini-terrarium inside was remarkable — soil had accumulated over the years, then moss spores somehow found their way in.

Bryophytes in a bottle

Another world inside; like the Sewanee Bubble.

Last, Jeff found a spectacular Philomycus under some bark of a downed log. These native gastropods are “mantleslugs” and they are as big as cigars.

Philomycus with the fecal remains of its fungus dinner.