Rare moss fruits for first time in 130 years

Wednesday, January 8, 2003

LONDON -- For more than 130 years, the rare Nowell's moss found on old limestone walls in northwest England has not been known to fruit and the plant has been listed as an endangered species.

But scientists said Tuesday they have found tiny brown cigar-shaped spores on a patch of the moss on a wall at Penyghent Hill in the undulating Yorkshire Dales -- the first time since 1866 that the moss is known to have reproduced.

"I was absolutely overjoyed ... because I knew the history of the plant and I knew that the last person to see this was a famous botanist in the 1860s," said Fred Rumsey, a plant biodiversity researcher at London's Natural History Museum, who made the find.

Scientists from the University of Bradford and the Natural History Museum are now studying the plant's molecular and genetic makeup to find ways to protect it from further decline. They are also investigating the mites that have been damaging the plants by eating the female sex organs.

"We may have to do some matchmaking -- 130 years is a very long time to go without sex," said Rumsey.

The last person to see the moss fruit is thought to be a friend of John Nowell, the Victorian botanist who discovered the plant in 1866 and for whom it was named.

Patches of Nowell's Moss have continued to grow on Yorkshire's traditional limestone walls, but its spread has declined as the walls have deteriorated. The plant produces no flowers, but shoots out its brownish spores after reproduction between male and female plants.

Rumsey said researchers found the moss is "still abundant in small areas in low altitudes, but some of the colonies were all one sex and there were no opportunities for them to reproduce. In some of the sites there were both sexes, but they were a meter (yard) or two apart and that may not seem far, but for a very small sperm that is a long way to swim."

"They need a continuous stream of moisture. Therefore the plants can't successfully colonize and so stopped reproducing sexually."

The new fruiting probably happened when male and female moss came together on a wall on Penyghent Hill after being washed or blown down from nearby, Rumsey said.

On the Net

  • Natural History Museum, http://www.nhm.ac.uk

  • University of Bradford, http://www.bradford.ac.uk

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