I swear the person who named liverwort wasn’t thinking how they’d handle themselves on the playground. I mean really, “liver” and “wort”! His mother must have hated him!
In the photo above the liverwort is the fleshy looking bow tie with the reptilian texture! The books I’ve been reading often talk about moss and liverworts together because they reproduce in a similar way—via sperm that swim and fertilize eggs in a separate female plants.
Like moss, liverworts appear in most every ecosystem around the world. Liverwort is everywhere except the very driest environments, there are species that live in the desert and there are approx. 9,000 specimens worldwide. Scientists used to consider them Bryophyta like moss but are now placing the liverwort in a different division. The only liverworts I’ve seen so far grow on the sides of rocks in streams and rivers where they are constantly wetted by the splash of water.
According to Wikipedia, liverwort means “liver plant” in Old English and was named in ancient times for it’s supposed ability to cure liver disease. However, today it is not used as food or medicine. In fact, we humans don’t use it for anything except as an aquarium plant.
Well, sex is definitely overstating it a bit! When I and others use the word sex in connection to moss, it’s for fun or sensationalism and eyeballs.
When it comes to moss we are definitely talking about reproduction. I’ve been formulating an article about moss sex for a while but then the scientific journal Nature came out with new research and new discoveries in July. Glad I waited…
Until recently it was believed that moss relied on water and moisture to get it’s sperm to the eggs. Most moss plants are either male or female. The eggs are contained in little pod-like structures called archegoniums and the sperm have to swim with the help of water to the eggs.
Moss grows everywhere, so I don’t see how anyone could truly be concerned that moss fertilization was impossible or seriously flawed. On the other hand, based on what scientists knew about moss reproduction, fertilization seemed like a difficult proposition. Some say the moss sperm are weak and unintelligent, they scarcely live long enough make the distance to the eggs and there is also the challenge of finding the ensconced eggs with no road signs.
The new discovery is that the moss reproductive process looks a great deal like what happens with flowers, pollen and bees. Some cute micro bugs called Springtails as well as mites, act like bees traveling around, in and through the moss and the sperm are able to hitch a ride to the female eggs. And like flowers, female moss emits a chemical or scent that helps the sperm and the Springtails to find it. (Male plants have a scent as well.)
So a couple of other cool moss sex facts:
Moss is one of most ancient plants on earth and evolved from the algae in the oceans. Moss, lichen, liverworts all have sperm. Other plants do not. Scientists consider moss to be caught in a time warp; they evolved early on and then stayed the same.
In addition to water, scents and Springtails, it may be that moss sperms are released from a little pod or case, that catapults them near and far and thus reduces the distance they travel on their own. Seems like you could test this out by videotaping a moss plant continuously. Like a reality show for moss.
Scientists say the new research raises more questions than it answers. Those questions include, what’s in it for the Springtails? What do they get out of their relationship with moss? And is this kind of pollinator relationship more common then we thought? If moss & springtails do it and flowers & bees, anyone else?
What other discoveries lie ahead:)
If you are riveted by moss sex, here are my sources:
Karen Nierlich is the author of I Heart Moss (Formerly Journal of a Moss Enthusiastic.) She’s looking forward to the rainy season and the opportunity to take more moss photos. She lives in Albany, CA with her husband, two kids, two cats and a dog.
My father-in-law’s family and ancestors lived off the land and the forest in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They lived in a small log cabin without electricity or running water. Fresh, fresh water ran in creeks and rivers nearby. His family and others were forced to accept payment from the Park Service and move off the land so that the land could be preserved as a park. Frank Abbott grew up on a farm immediately outside the park.
We always head up to Big Rock when we visit my father-in-law. B-I-G Rock is a big rock that overhangs a busy river. There Frank and his brothers and friends played in the summers — jumping off the rock and catching crawdads in the waters below. In Spring, the waters flowing below Big Rock are fridge but it is one amazingly mossy spot. (cont. below)
Each year we go up there my husband and others jump off the rock…and…I…watch. I like to think I’m a fairly rugged girl but when it comes to cold water, I’m a total wimp.
This year I wanted to be able to show a photo of myself jumping off the rock to my Facebook friends. (I know, I know, I’m not proud of this.) So I got up there and after 2-3 tries managed to jump off. The water felt like it’d melted off an ice pack mere seconds ago. I seriously felt like I’d get ice burn if I stayed in there. I swam and scrambled out of there as fast as I could. I think you can see how pained I was in the after photo below where you see me on the bank.
Karen Nierlich is author of Journal of a Moss Enthusiast, Albany, CA. Photographic prints of some images will be available in the future and she is starting to put together a book of moss photos and text.