The World in Miniature: How Tiny Creatures Help Mosses Get It On

By Veronique Greenwood | July 23, 2012 12:51 pm


Those lush little wads of greenery in your yard have it hard. To reproduce, male mosses must release their sperm into the dew and wait for them to trickle into a female moss, which is a separate plant altogether. Perhaps, if they’re lucky, the sperm might be given a lift by tiny arthropods called springtails, making their way through the moss patch.

Why the springtails get involved in this slow-motion seduction hasn’t been clear. But now researchers have found that just as flowers release scents that attract bees, butterflies, and other pollinators, so too does the humble moss lure in the springtail with its own special secretions.

Sampling the air above mosses, the team found that both male and female mosses release volatile scent compounds, many of which have been seen before in flower scents. They also found that when they gave springtails the choice between the male and the female moss scents, the creatures prefer the female’s, perhaps an adaptation on the moss’s part to attract springtails that have already wandered through a male’s sperm to a receptive female plant. The team also verified that having springtails around significantly increases fertilization rates.

This is clear, and fascinating, evidence that springtails and mosses have coevolved, much like flowering plants and their pollinators. And this relationship may be incredibly ancient: mosses and arthropods are some of the oldest forms of life around. The team will next look at how these scents are being produced and whether they have anything to do with the communities of microbes that sometimes roost on mosses.

Image courtesy of ibsut / flickr

  • Cody

    Oops, your sprintails link is duped!

    • Veronique Greenwood


  • JimmyDean Breakfastsausage

    I love moss (except for the stuff on my roof), it’s like a little world unto itself. Flowering mosses, tiny, tiny mushrooms flowering in flowering mosses. Insects, tiny snails and ants.

    Moss has different colors for different times of the year, different moisture content, if it’s flowering or not.

    Just amazing and beautiful to look at. I just wish it wasn’t on my roof.

  • fintin

    I’ll never look at dew the same way again.

  • Ben Wise

    Nice to learn that you don’t need to have a flower to get an “arthropod assist” in the fertilization process. As for “evidence that springtails and mosses have coevolved,” this seems like an overstatement from what is presented. The case can be made that mosses have evolved a means to recruit springtails as aids in fertilization, but I don’t see anything in the report that suggests an evolutionary development in springtails related to this effect. I wonder if one exists. Put another way, is there an evolutionary advantage for springtails to make moss reproduction more efficient? Perhaps it’s that the mosses provide a nice environment for the springtails to live and reproduce in? Mosses do, indeed, provide a wonderful, wet microenvironment for all kinds of microscopic life (see “Microscopic Life in Sphagnum” by Marjorie Hingley). I suppose it’s nice to know that at least some of the tenants contribute to the host’s life cycle as well.

  • floodmouse

    This gives a whole new dimension to the phrase, “dewey-eyed.”


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