Changing Planet

Pictures: Strange and Beautiful Falkland Mosses

Paulo loves mosses. He notices them everywhere. He thinks about them all the time. If you ask about them, he beams.

I get the distinct impression that the worst afterlife he could imagine would be to come back as a rolling stone.

This week though, he’s in seventh heaven. Professor Paulo Câmara of the University of Brasilia has been collecting mosses in the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas) as part of the pan-American Falklands Islands Science Symposium lead by the UK Science and Innovation Network and his collection is growing steadily in size and fame.

“Paulo,” I say one day after the meetings are over. “You must tell me about the mosses.”

Before I know it, we’re outside, on the ground, picking up a sample of a spiky little mosses and peering at them through Paolo’s hand lens to try to discern tell-tale structures on each one. Unless you observe them on their own small scale, trying to identify mosses is going to be like trying to identify tree species from the window of a trans-continental flight.

We move on to the hotel, where he’s stashed all his samples in neatly labeled paper bags that are cataloged in a spiral notebook he takes on each sampling mission.

“Mosses are everywhere,” he says, adding with a certain pride that they create the conditions that allow many other forms of life to thrive.

Start with some bare, damp rocks. In comes a moss spore.

It makes its own food and grows, using its rhyzoid filaments to hold on to the surface of that bare rock with incredible strength.

If anything breaks off the primitive leaves or stem, each of those can regenerate into a new plant.

Mature male mosses produce two-tailed sperm that, unlike almost all flowering plant sperm, actively swim through the damp surroundings to fertilize the female plants and begin the growth of structures that will create new spores.

Soon where there was once only bare rock, there’s a whole dense clump of moss, retaining up to ten times its weight in water and creating an environment where other plants and animals can feed, breed, and grow.

And this is all happening everywhere, all the time.

And that’s at least part of why Paulo is so passionate about mosses.

Now get outside, find some moss, and take a good close look. You might find yourself smiling just as much as Paulo. (Photo by Andrew Howley)
Now get outside, find some moss, and take a good close look. You might find yourself smiling just as much as Paulo. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

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Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. In 2018 he became Communications Director at Adventure Scientists, founded by Nat Geo Explorer Gregg Treinish. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of nationalgeographic.com for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley.
  • Renato Gama

    Grande Paulo!
    He is an awesome person and a great scientist.
    I’m proud to be one of his former students.

    Moss Power!
    =D

  • Renato Gama

    And I guess that is a Campylopus pilifer? Judging by the reflexed hairpoints..

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