By Hanna Liebermann, Hendrix College biology student / BRIT intern, & Charles Gardner, bryophyte specialist / BRIT Research Associate
Bryophytes, defined by their lack of vascular tissue, are a category of smaller plants that include the mosses, liverworts, and hornworts. With the exception of the few specialists who hold these groups dear and recognize their miniature complexity, the “bryos” are generally an unsung category of botanical study. Nevertheless, they are an extremely valuable section of BRIT’s collection, representative of local and global vegetation.
While the majority of BRIT’s bryophyte collection has been scanned and the packet label information entered into the Symbiota database, little had been accomplished in terms of publishing more detailed, qualitative data. Under BRIT Research Associate and bryophyte specialist Charles Gardner’s guidance, I began my internship tackling this project by evaluating each of the 144 individual moss specimens collected in Tarrant County and contained in BRIT’s herbarium. Reports were made on each specimen regarding their overall quality, the presence and stage of reproductive structures, and whether enough material was enclosed for an exchange with another institution, as well as the presence of other types of bryophytes, lichens, or unrelated organisms in the packet. While documenting this information using a recently devised rating system for these parameters, I also worked to validate and complete any missing label information and correct any misplaced data.
The goal of the project is to provide various database portals with useful, updated data about the contents of our collection, making the information more accessible and allowing researchers around the world to evaluate which specific specimens they may be interested in. In conjunction with this effort, high definition photos of the internal contents of each of the packets will be provided to the portals, as well as close-up pictures of critical structures. Ultimately, these efforts benefit the herbarium by solidifying our knowledge of what exactly the collection includes.
This project has also been an educational experience, allowing me to learn and examine the morphological characteristics of the bryophytes and any other organisms found in the collection. My exposure to this largely misunderstood area of botanical study occurred both on site at BRIT and in fieldwork conducted at a local ranch near Bowie, Texas (see video at bottom of post). Over the course of this project, I studied the 46 unique taxa included in the collection, learned the different techniques and tools used in collecting, processing, and observing bryophytes, and discovered the endearing quirks and beauty of working with these smaller plants. Along the way, I have noted interesting differences from studying higher plant specimens. For example, the necessary inclusion of substrate in the collection packet, the delicate notes (sometimes scribbled on the backs of receipts) enclosed with measurements and illustrations of sporophyte structure and size, and of course the abundance of accessory mosses, lichens, algae, and fungi found in each collection packet. On occasion, these surprising findings included insect remains as well.
Opening the origami-like folds of each moss packet under the microscope unfolded rich microenvironments and landscapes full of interlaced organisms. To work with herbarium specimens on this scale and nurture an appreciation for their tiny structures and characteristics has been an unexpected learning opportunity, and I am glad to have spent this time with them.
Thus far, the project has revealed that BRIT’s collection of local mosses includes packet material ranging from generous to minimal, the majority of which were collected in various stages of reproductive development, and with extensive species diversity for one county.
“Mysterious and little-known organisms live within reach of where you sit. Splendor awaits in minute proportions.” - E. O. Wilson
Below: moss specimen collecting with Charles Gardner (left) and Dale Kruse of Texas A&M (right)