Ecosphere Children

Big little world

Imagine you have entered the woods, dark and deep, the canopies of the dense trees filtering off much of the sunlight. The air is humid and every now and then clouds of mist swirl around. Where the veil of mist parts, you see that the trunks and branches are festooned with a green, velvety growth – moss. Strangely, the green velvet seems to cover only one side of the tree trunk. It is the side the rain comes from. The sound of your footsteps is muted by the carpet of green moss under your feet.

Microscopic view

Imagine if, quite by magic, you shrink until you are smaller than an ant.

Now you can enter a different forest — the micro forest of mosses. You find that all around are green shoots bearing leaves that absorb whatever sunlight is available and drink in the moisture. Some stalks that grow straight up without branching, bear capsules. They all look exceedingly pretty. But the whooshing wind lends an eeriness to the scene. The air above these mossy forests seems to be permanently turbulent owing to the rough surface they form. This is how the moisture from the higher reaches of air gets trapped into this special forest.

It gets more intriguing as you explore further. Suddenly, a foul smell penetrates your nostrils. It comes from a different moss plant. Before you can retreat from it, a monster-like arthropod – a springtail – rushes to the malodorous female moss plant as if it found the smell divine. The springtails carry out the job of what bees do to pollinate the more evolved higher plants: they carry sperm from the male moss plant to the smelly female moss plant, just as bees help carry pollen to the stigma of flowers.

Watch out! A capsule just bursts open, shooting out tiny spores with great force that defies gravity. These spores will give rise to new moss plants. So, this alien-looking forest does not reproduce with seeds.

Now, what if you exit this micro forest, turn into your normal self and go 470 million years back in time when the seed-producing plants you see today were not yet in existence? The landscape would be very different. Barren and rocky. But the mosses, one of the first land plants, would be there. You would see them clinging on to rocks with their root-like rhizoids, near streams and lakes. You would be surprised to observe these rhizoids do not absorb moisture like the roots of plants. Instead, they secrete organic acids that would actually dissolve rocks over the years, creating nutrient-rich soil and paving the way for the more complex seed-producing plants to evolve.

So, the next time you see that green velvety layer on bricks or soil, remember, there is much more to it than meets the eye. In fact, they have survived millions of years, like living fossils.

Here is something you can try doing:

Take a powerful magnifying lens and examine the moss up close. You will be amazed by all that you see. You can even try shooting pictures of what you see through the magnifying lens.

Attach a length of a very light ribbon to a stick and hold it just above the layer of moss to observe the turbulence set up by the rough moss surface, even when it is windless elsewhere. Then hold the ribbon over any smooth surface nearby. Does the ribbon flutter now or is it still?

Fun facts:

Mosses were used as bandages during the First World War

There are about 12000 species of mosses.

Mosses may vary in height from 0.2 cm to 10 cm, depending on the species.

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Printable version | Sep 25, 2021 7:24:50 PM |

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