Welcome to my blog

This is where I post various musings about wildlife and ecology, observations of interesting species (often invertebrates)
and bits of research that grab my attention. As well as blogging, I undertake professional ecological & wildlife surveys
covering invertebrates, plants, birds, reptiles, amphibians and some mammals, plus habitat assessment and management
. I don't work on planning applications/for developers. The pages on the right will tell you more about my work,
main interests and key projects, and you can follow my academic work here.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Eight spores good - a mossy mystery

Looking through moss and fragments of moist dead wood recently, I've found a range of small invertebrates such as mites, and spurred on to see what else dwells within, I've clocked up some more microscope time. Scanning a specimen of the creeping feather-moss Amblystegium serpens, a common species known from various habitats/substrates including both living and dead wood, I noticed some tiny red-brown structures underneath some of the leaves. Having a look through Atherton et al. (2010) and Watson (1981), no moss structures looked quite like it, so I started photographing and magnifying...

Structures growing from the stem of Amblystegium serpens
There's not a lot of detail here, but an idea of scale can be gained - the width of the stem (no more than about 0.2mm - the leaves are also tiny, about 0.5mm long) is clear where it reaches the left-hand side of the photo and the more-or-less rectangular (but not especially elongate) individual cells can be seen there. Just to the left of the pin, the stem is a little different however - the cells are orange-brown and a little larger. This might be of interest as many gall-causing Fungi induce changes in cell size and tissue colour. So, to see more detail in the brown masses, I made a simple 'squash' preparation for higher magnification.

Fibrous structure growing from the stem beneath a leaf of Amblystegium serpens
The fibrous structure is clearer here, including its point of attachment/outgrowth from just below the base of a leaf. The longest fibres are maybe 0.5mm long, maybe a little more, but it is still unclear exactly what they are. Mosses produce a number of structures worth considering here:

  • Paraphyses - thin sterile hairs, sometimes club-shaped, usually multicellular. A possibility.
  • Protonema - the young stage of a moss that develops when a spore germinates; generally appears as a system of green threads. Clearly not the case here.
  • Gemma - a unit of vegetative propagation, may be single-celled, two-celled or multicellular. Another possibility.
To determine whether these were parts of the moss and/or a fungus growing on it, more detail was needed.

Various structures seen attached to Amblystegium serpens
A fungal spore found with a sample of Amblystegium serpens
In the first of this pair of photos, a number of structures are visible. Those indicated by blue arrows are unidentified - the larger fragment could be a paraphysis or similar (or an equivalent fungal paraphysis) while the 4-celled structure could be gemmal or a 4-celled fungal ascus (spore-bearing 'sac') - this is largely guesswork however, partly informed by checking fungal structure using Webster (1970). The structure indicated by a red arrow is rather clearer and appears to be the ascus (spore-bearing 'sac') of a discomycete fungus, complete with the typical eight spores seen when fully developed, though the left-most one is blurred out in the photo. Other similar structures could be seen, including the spore in the lower photo - it is almost spherical and measures around 13 x 15 um, and although again blurred out here, has a surface covered in tiny 'warts' (i.e. it is 'verruculose'). Consulting Ellis & Ellis (1998), there appears to be only one contender with this host and set of characteristics - the microfungus Octospora wrightii which is associated primarily with this moss, and is found from January to March.

As ever, comments, suggestions and corrections welcome - I am, as is so often the case, writing outside my comfort zone here; how else to learn though?


Atherton, I., Bosnaquet, S. & Lawley, M. (eds.) (2010). Mosses and Liverworts of Britain and Ireland: A Field Guide. British Bryological Society. [If you only buy one UK bryology book, I can recommend making it this one]
Ellis, M.B. & Ellis, J.P. (1998). Microfungi on Miscellaneous Substrates: An Identification Handbook (2nd ed.). Richmond, Slough.
Watson, E.V. (1981). British Mosses and Liverworts (3rd ed.). Cambridge University Press.
Webster, J. (1970). Introduction to Fungi. Cambridge University Press.

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