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.
Hardy Antarctic moss.
Ah, Antarctica. A vast expanse of ice, interrupted by mountains, ice… and more ice (with the occasional penguin). But in the East of the continent and on the Windmill Islands near Australia’s Casey research station, bare ground can actually be seen during summer months. Here Antarctica’s endemic plants dwell: lichens, terrestrial algae, and mosses. These smatterings of bryophytes are amongst the hardiest flora in the world, providing a home for a variety of minute life. They survive being covered in snow most of the year, only growing briefly during the summer months, watered by snowmelt. Except for in-person observations made over the last two decades, little definitive was known about these oases of diversity, like their age or how they might respond to changes in climate.
But now, some of the moss’s secrets are out. A recent study in the journal Global Change Biology found that some of these plants must be more than a century old, and a few may even be thousands of years old, said researcher and study author Sharon Robinson via email. On average these mosses grow at the glacial speed of 1 millimeter per year—and some of the turfs are meters thick. That means many of these unassuming mossy carpets were there when humans first made it to the continent a century ago—and likely well before. “These mosses are effectively the old growth forests of Antarctica—in miniature,” Robinson said.
Let’s say you’re a peat moss plant. Since you’re stuck in one place, and it’s low to the ground where there’s little wind or air turbulence, you have to find a way to shoot your spores way up into the air where they can be dispersed.
In reality, mosses have conquered this problem by shooting their spores into the sky at speeds of greater than 30 meters (nearly 100 feet) per second. Their spherical capsules containing the spores deform inward until the pressure forces a ferocious explosion to propel spores at that velocity. But even this is not enough—air would slow the spores before they reached a high enough height to get carried away.