Saturday, 24 September 2016 03:36

Small plants in the ranges

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Australian Bryophyte Workshop, Flinders Ranges, South Australia, 20 - 26 August 2016

In Australia's largest mountain ranges, I joined Australian and international bryologists to search out some of the plant kingdom's smallest members - moss, liverworts and hornworts. As I'm a beginner in this field, and was just a few weeks into my PhD, the week long bryophyte immersion was a welcome launch pad into the world of moss research.

We searched for bryophytes at various locations including Alligator Gorge in Mount Remarkable National Park - where the pace ground to a halt as we observed large moss mats of numerous species growing on rock ledges and boulders as well as soil (see image below).

Alison Walls of moss Alligator Gorge


A liverwort that popped up in the moister regions of the gorge, I learnt, was of the genus, Lunularia (recognisable for its gemmae cups which are like half moon - gemmae being its vegetative reproductive structures, hence its common name, the crescent cupped liverwort - see image below). The salt marsh at Port Augusta, dominated by beautiful red samphire bushes, was home to only a few of the very toughest bryophytes.

Alison Lunilaria

I was excited to see hornworts growing in the field as I'd never spotted them before. I kept missing their discovery on this trip until Pina told a few of us of their location by a stream bank in Mount Lofty Botanical Gardens. These ones had proud horns a plenty. The horns are similar to sporophytes in moss but, in this species at least, much tinier.

The days were wrapped up with after dinner talks from participants. Professor Jim Haseloff from the University of Cambridge spoke about the work he's doing with the common liverwort, Marchantia polymorpha, using it as a model species to understand plant growth. Alison Downing of Macquarie University gave a good overview of her trips to China where she's collaborated with students and researchers, particularly by assisting with their English language papers on biocrusts. I presented a poster setting the scene for my PhD work on the mechanisms of persistence of urban moss and possible applications of moss and biocrusts on green roofs.

Alison Moss detectives in Melrose

As the photo above shows, the moss detectives were out in town as well as natural environments - here are Alison Downing and Graham Bell (kneeling), with Kevin Downing taking a look at a moss hot spot at Melrose.


The workshop (which ended with a couple of days in the labs at the University of South Australia) was a great opportunity to observe bryophytes in numerous habitats and ponder how to do a good job sampling these tiny plants with such patchy distribution. A centimetre square piece of turf I collected at the small town of Melrose, for example, contained at least four different moss species growing together. The image below shows a healthy looking cushion with several associated moss species in a gutter at the small town of Wilmington. The locals thought me crazy for taking pictures of the roadside!

Alison Wilmington Moss

Finally, a tip if you are out mossing and want to ensure your 10,000 steps minimum in a day: don't look down all the time - it's too distracting. Moss enthusiasts have been known to set off on a walk, be gone hours, but only have made it 100 metres down the track. When you know how and where to look (and have the aid of a hand lens) there is so much to see!

Many thanks to the organisers for hosting me: Graham Bell, Chris Cargill and Pina Milne of the State Herbarium of South Australia, Australian National Herbarium and Royal Botanic Gardens, Victoria, respectively.

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