Marvelous Mounds of Mosses

Field Guide: For this week’s field guide, I had Common Mosses of the Northeast and Appalachians, which I thoroughly enjoyed using, despite the ambiguity between many species of moss. I was quite surprised by my ease in finding mosses to collect. I know they’re a quite prevalent plant, but I had planned to have to walk a little bit along the Upper Lake path before I found some good specimens, at least. Instead, I walked out of my dorm, started along the steep hill ridge to the path, and noticed some moss peeking out between the tufts of grass. I set my things down in order to take a picture and collect a sample to look at under the dissecting scope. As I did, I noticed another patch of moss that looked quite different from the first. I photographed and sampled both, then decided to look around to see if there were any more. Sure enough, underneath a tree at the top of the ridge, I came across yet another species. It made me take a step back, mentally, and realize just how ubiquitous mosses can be.

As I mentioned, I quite liked the setup of the moss field guide. The three key features were clearly explained, and had excellent drawings of most of the various forms within each category. Following the key was straightforward and simple, and the guide had several helpful notes on each form or leaf shape. Unlike some guides, where you get bogged down by innumerable subsections of the key, this book was simple and clear cut. This helped alleviate some of the frustration of the many species of moss that look so very darn similar.

My first sample came from the mid-section of the ridge, and was quite prolific, with many patches scattered amongst the grass. Back in my lab, I teased apart a few stems in order to examine them more closely. I almost classified my sample as acrocarp, but under further inspection, settled on pleurocarp due to the many branches and intertwined morphology. I used forceps to remove a few leaves for examination. It proved to be a little difficult to tell if they were lance or sickle shaped, as the tips curved. It was obvious that they lacked a midrib. I looked through the pleurocarp, lance-shaped leaf with no midrib section to no avail. I then tried the same, except for replacing lance-shaped with sickle-shaped. Through a twisted, convoluted route of tracing similar species, I finally stumbled upon sword moss (Callicladium haldanianum), which has neither lanced nor sickled leaves, but rather ovate. I made this my tentative identification, as it was very similar morphologically, but the habitats did not quite match. Sword moss is supposed to grow on moist soil, and the area where I found my sample seemed rather dry, as it was on a steep, exposed slope.

My second sample was the easiest to identify. The acrocarp stems grew close together, to form a thick, springy mat that was very pleasant to the touch. The stems branched very little, and had large, lance-shaped leaves with obvious midribs. When I first examined them, the leaves were crinkled along their edges and curled over themselves. I plucked a leave to inspect it more closely, and observed that it crumpled in on itself almost immediately. Within 2-3 minutes of removal, the leaf was completely curled in on itself. Curious, I examined the stems I had removed from the larger clump. They, too, had leaves more crumpled than when I first saw them. I put a drop of water on the stems, and watched, amazed, as the leaves quickly absorbed the water, unrolled and fleshed out, forming miniature starbursts. Quite fittingly, the species is named the wavy starburst moss (Atrichum altecristatum). I identified it mainly by leaf morphology and placement on the stem. I thought it may have been slender starburst moss at first, but the wavy was a much better fit, both in appearance and habitat. The habitat fit almost perfectly: wavy starburst moss grows on the sides of ravines, banks along roads, or lawns. Since the place I collected it was a grassy ridge along a road, it lent much credence to my identification.

My third sample proved to be rather difficult, and I’m still not sure if I identified it correctly. When I collected it, the tiny stems were densely packed into rounded mound with defined edges. As I examined them under the dissecting scope, I saw that the acrocarp stems had very little green—only the tips looked lively, with the rest of the 2/3 or so brown and dry looking, and often laced with sandy soil. The leaves, when dry, looked hair-like and curled into loose corkscrews. When I wetted them, they appeared more lance-shaped, with a poorly pronounced midrib. I looked through the section of acrocarps with hair-like leaves to no avail, before turning to the lances. The closest I could find there was the brick carpet moss (Bryoerythrophyllum recurvirostrum), which had a distinctive folding characteristic of the leaves which matched what I observed. As the leaves dried out, they folded in half along the midrib, while the outer edges curled. Brick carpet moss is supposed to have a red-orange stem, however, that my sample lacked. The habitat also didn’t quite match, as they seem to be in moister environments that where I found this specimen. What was really distinctive about this moss, to me, was the neat, tight mounds that it formed. None of the images in the book had a view that “zoomed-out,” however, so I had little to compare it to.

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Sit Spot: In the chill of the morning, I walked up the hill to the trail that leads to my sit spot. The frost-laced grass gave way brittley beneath my feet. As I entered the woods, intricate ice crystals no longer traced the outlines of the leaves and plants on the ground. What causes this? The sun hadn’t warmed the woods any longer than the lawn. Do the trees and undergrowth somehow insulate the forest floor? As I approached my usual spot beneath a red pine, I noticed the scuffed ground around my seat. It looks like my repeated visits have made an impact on the leaf litter. I wonder if other animals leave such traces at oft-visited spots. I’ll have to keep an eye out to see if I ever run across any.

The sun was rising as I sat, ahead of me and a little to the left up the hill. This means that the slope faces mainly south west. This led me to think about the prevalence of red pines in the area. Did they grow here naturally? Since the hill isn’t a high, dry ridge-top, I doubt it. Were they planted? They don’t seem to be arranged in any orderly rows. The ground is fairly smooth and un-pillowed. Was it once used for agriculture? Were the pines planted for a woodlot? Are they a common species for such a use?

The absence of leaves on almost all the trees, barring some oaks and beeches, brought to mind the question of adaptive strategies. Why do some trees drop their leaves early, and others, like the oaks, retain them long into winter? Do oaks get any remaining sustenance by holding their leaves for so prolonged a time? Do they protect the buds? Is it a byproduct of some other characteristic? I may delve into the natural history of oaks to satisfy my curiosity.

Reading response: The Wessels chapter proved, as always, to be interesting. Through our other readings, and mentions in class, I knew that pillows and cradles were a sign of forests that have been relatively undisturbed by agriculture. It was intriguing to learn about how you can read the history of wind damage from what direction the mounds and depressions are oriented. I also never knew that glacial boulders could be the cause of pillows. Now I want to go out to the woods and see if I can discern which pillows are formed with which method. I also vaguely remembered reading somewhere that only conifers usually constituted nurse logs. This chapter clarified why, which makes a good deal of sense, according to what we learned in chapter three about the decaying patterns of different trees.

The most intriguing thing about the Leahy chapter was the lack of obligate species in old growth forests. As a rare, often revered part of New England’s landscape, I somewhat assumed that they supported unique flora and fauna, as that is usually why people try to conserve specific places or ecosystems. It was a little bit of a twist to my thinking. I fully believe they should be maintained, as beautiful living monuments to what our forests once were. However, in terms of the general populace, I feel like it might be hard to convince others of this, due to the lack of obligate organisms. It seems lucky, then, that most of our old growth forests are on protected land, or in places unfavorable for development. Hopefully, as Leahy mentions, the middle-aged forests that we do have will be preserved and allowed to develop into old growth forests. The idea that there may have been obligate species in the ancient forests that we’ve destroyed is an intriguing, and somewhat haunting one. We can never know what we might have obliterated with our actions, as it happened before anyone really cared to look.

Project Site: We haven’t done much for our project site this week, as we have yet to receive comments on the first draft of our paper. I have worked a little bit on finding more literature and resources that may shed some light on areas we were unsure about. I feel like we could have a tighter understanding of the specific use history for our site, even though we have a good general idea of the possibilities. Also, though they might be unimportant flukes, there were a few species whose indicator status did not match up with the habitat in which we found them. I would like to delve into that a bit deeper, possibly, and see if it tells us anything interesting.

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One thought on “Marvelous Mounds of Mosses

  1. Pingback: Rare moss rediscovered in the Netherlands | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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