Just one collection of Flabellidium spinosum was ever made. Theodor Herzog found this moss growing in the Tres Cruces Cordillera almost a century ago. Theodor Herzog was a German bryologist and is famous (What? You haven’t heard of him?) for his work on the biogeography of mosses.
The area and others of they type where F. spinosum was found have since been logged and used for cultivation and F. spinosum hasn’t been spotted since its original collection. Niles Eldredge calls it “a representative of all the species that slip, unnoticed, into oblivion when an ecosystem is destroyed.”
Mosses are tiny – this one was described as “a fragile moss, with fronded, yellow-green branches growing to only about 1 cm in height.” Most people don’t notice moss at all or they think of it as all basically the same. Lucky for me, I’ve had lots of plant classes where I’ve learned to appreciate the beauty and diversity of these tiny plants.
Have you ever wondered why moss is so small? That was one of the big questions in my life when I was 5. I had to wait until college to get a real answer. Most plants have vascular systems made up of tracheids and/or vessels, which are tube-like cells that move water throughout the plant. These cells are what make up the veins in leaves and the rings in trees.
Mosses don’t have these special cells. Mosses were the first plants on land and are what botanists call primitive (the botanical term for really old and super cool). The don’t even have real roots! They get water through absorption – like little sponges. If they’re big, they can’t absorb enough water.
Their small size doesn’t mean they aren’t important. Because moss is such an early plant, we can learn a lot about plant evolution by studying them. F. spinosum seems to have been the only species in its genus, so when it went extinct, we lost a lot of important moss genes.
Mosses stabilize the soil crust – it’s often one of the first colonizers. They help prevent flash flooding by absorbing lots of water quickly and releasing it slowly and regulate humidity in a system the same way. They form the basis of several ecosystems – like peat bogs – and are incredibly important in many wetlands. Mosses are worth a lot of money, too. Even though they’re “primitive” plants, they can produce some very weird chemicals that we use in medication and perfume. Moss is even used for cleaning up oil spills on land and may prevent more extensive damage from spills.
Another thing I really like about moss is that they have really cool reproductive structures. Flowers are pretty and often big and flashy. Moss reproductive structures are teeny tiny and not very colorful, but some of them have teeth!
I get disheartened by all of the species extinctions, but today is Thanksgiving and there is a lot to be thankful for. I’m grateful for all the species that are still out there and that, while many will go extinct in my lifetime, I’m here to see and appreciate them before they go. I’m grateful for all of the systematists, naturalists, and other scientists (like Theodor Herzog!) who devoted their lives to finding and describing so many species. I’m grateful for all of the organizations dedicated to maintaining a record of the incredible diversity of life, especially the Missouri Botanical Garden and the Encyclopedia of Life. Most of all, I’m grateful for all of the people who care about non-human species and do what they can to prevent extinction.