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Scientists Discover Rip Van Winkle Of The Plant World


We're going to hear now about what could be thought of as the Rip Van Winkle of the plant world. Scientists have found examples of a kind of plant known as bryophytes. And after spending 400 years buried by a glacier, when the ice receded the plants started growing again.

NPR's Joe Palca has more.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Bryophytes don't get much respect. They're not the gaudy seed plants people plant in their gardens or give as gifts. Jonathan Shaw runs the bryology lab at Duke University.

JONATHAN SHAW: They're the kinds of things that you see covering a rotting log or, in some cases, in people's lawns. And they either love that because they don't have to mow the grass, or they hate that because it's taking over the lawn.

PALCA: Me, I love bryophytes. Probably the most famous bryophyte is moss. And moss has a habit of remaining green for a long time.

SHAW: After a hundred years, a moss may look perfectly natural and even retain it's green color.

PALCA: Shaw says one of the other amazing things about bryophytes is their ability to regenerate.

SHAW: There are examples of bryophytes regenerating after decades in a dried condition.

PALCA: So, Shaw wasn't totally surprised when he read in the latest issue of the journal PNAS what Catherine La Farge found on Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic. She and her colleagues had been looking at what the Teardrop Glacier was leaving behind as it receded. And it recent years it's been receding rather rapidly.

CATHERINE LA FARGE: It's like lifting a blanket.

PALCA: You get to see whatever was buried underneath.

FARGE: We were aware that there was vegetation coming out from underneath the glaciers but we had no idea that there was such a diversity of bryophytes that were actually coming out from underneath the glaciers.

PALCA: She took some of the bryophytes back to her lab in Alberta to learn what being entombed in ice for 400 years had done to them. La Farge knows bryophytes regenerate but she was still surprised when the saw that the plants she'd had brought back from the Arctic were growing.

FARGE: So we thought that is just pretty bizarre. Thinking that they had been exhumed from underneath a glacier and they are actually, you know, producing new growth.

PALCA: As more glacier recede around the world, La Farge says we are likely to see more bryophytes appearing and starting to grow again And if they can transform the rubbly landscape left behind by glaciers, they might finally get some respect.

Joe Palca, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.