There is an ancient and time-honoured association – maybe co-evolution even – between birds and flowering plants, e.g. in respect of pollination and dispersal of the fruits/seeds of the latter by the former. Now, at the other end of the evolutionary spectrum of the Plant Kingdom, is news of another avian–Plantae link-up as Lily Lewis et al. present evidence for long-distance transport of bryophyte ‘bits-and-pieces’ in the plumage of transequatorial migrant birds.
Bryophytes – a general term that embraces mosses, liverworts and hornworts – are so-styled ‘lower plants’ that have occupied the planet for megamillennia and have many important ecological roles. But, like the other members of the Plant Kingdom, bryophytes are essentially immobile and fixed to one location. This poses problems to any enterprising moss, etc., that wants to boldly go, seek out, occupy and colonise new areas, in order to command resources and help to ensure its survival in the dog-eat-dog jungle that is the natural world.
However, evolution has equipped these cryptogams with a phase of the life cycle that is potentially mobile, the spore stage. Transfer of those spores away from the parent plant – and their subsequent germination, establishment and development into individual bryophyte plants – reduces competition for resources between parent and offspring, and extends the area occupied by that species.
Consequently, exploiting agents that can contribute to wide-ranging dispersal of those spores represents a considerable boost to aspirations of territorial gain for an ambitious ‘lower plant’. But reliance on spores to spread the species can be risky; e.g. if the bryophyte taxon concerned is dioicous and it either doesn’t travel along with another spore that gives rise to, or to a place that already contains, the corresponding male/female gametophyte in the new neighbourhood. Which is why Lewis et al.’s work is of considerable interest because – and despite the headline in Scientific American’s news item on the subject – the bird-assisted moss migration is not really about spores, but diaspores.
Although a diaspore (or ‘disseminule’) can be defined as ‘a reproductive plant part, such as a seed, fruit, or spore, that is modified for dispersal’, the definition is usually broadened to include any plant part that could result in the establishment of a new individual. Thus, it includes not only bryophyte spores, but also fragments of established plants, too.
Sampling the plumage of bird species in their Arctic breeding grounds – prior to their South Pole-ward migration – the team found examples of diaspores not only of bryophytes, but also of green algae/cyanobacteria, and fungi. The presence of these putative propagules amongst bird feathers thus seems to establish this phenomenon as another instance of ectozoochory (transport of plant – and algae/fungi/bacteria! – propagation units on the external surface of an animal).
But just because these passengers may be present at the start of the journey doesn’t necessarily mean that they arrive at the carrier’s destination, which in some cases – such as the red phalarope and the semipalmated sandpiper – is the southernmost tip of South America; e.g. could the disseminules be consumed during preening as a sort of in-flight snack by the birds…?
And – as the investigators recognise – even if diaspores arrive, this doesn’t demonstrate that they are viable and could become established in the new home. But it’s another step towards unlocking the mystery of how the disparate bipolar distributions of certain taxa of bryophytes, etc. could be established and maintained. Whether this counts as ‘blue-skies’ research I’m not sure, but it’s a topic that’s certainly got legs and could well take off![And if you’re interested in seeing of some of the pre-publication comments on the bryophyte paper, they can be found online. And for more on the world of moss, I recommend Jessica M. Budke’s blog site. – Ed.]