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A Final Fern Tribute, the Witch’s Hat Lichen, and an Unidentified Gelatinous Blob

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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It’s about time to get back to your regularly scheduled blogging. But before we leave the Southern Hemisphere entirely, let’s have one last Best of the Rest Post. It’s an assortment of stuff that didn’t fit elsewhere in my austral detour, but is nonetheless cool.

I don’t know if this is the legendary New Zealand silver fern, but it sure looks like it. Silver ferns are one of the the unofficial symbols of the country and the symbol of the New Zealand All Blacks, Rugby Team of Renown. I found this one lying on a trail in the Waipoua Forest that I visited to see the giant kauri pines. If it is the true silver fern, it fell off a tree-sized plant and is a small part of a much bigger frond. This is the underside.

Here is a closeup, showing the fern sori I discussed here:

Because I just can’t get enough of gorgeous and unusual ferns, here are some more. Would you guess that this is a fern, to look at it? Looks like just another simple leaf on the forest floor.

But underneath, there was this:

While at the Waimangu Volcanic Valley (the area it sits in is New Zealand’s answer to Yellowstone.) I had the bright idea to see if I could rig a crude “microscope camera” by taking a picture through my 10X loupe/hand lens. This was the result. I have dubbed it “Nerd Cam”.

Here is a closeup through Nerd Cam, which works well enough that you can see the crests on a few of the individual sporangia, or spore houses, in this sorus (a collection of sporangia — see this post for a discussion and picture of sori/sporangia).

Still don’t see that sporangia and their Roman-helmet like crests? Look at where the arrow is pointing:

To review, this is what an individual leptosporangite fern sporangium looks like:

See them in the closeup now?

Here are some more unusual ferns and their beautifully patterned sori:

Now this was something I’d definitely never seen before: a conical orange lichen in the shape of a witch’s hat. This was also spotted at Waimangu Volcanic Valley. Anybody know what it is?

Note the hollow interior, which I attempted to show here:

For the cycad lovers out there, here is a true tree cycad. Cycads are wonderful early-evolved plants that make seeds and cones but no true flowers. They’re closely related to conifers and gingkoes. In most of North America, you’re lucky to see the short, shrub-like cycads. Tree cycads are a novelty. As pointed out below, this is a taxonomy fail. This is actually yet another tree fern — Cyathea sp. To look at it, you can clearly see those are fern leaves, and not cycad leaves.

Look carefully at that trunk. Look a little different? That’s because the trunk is covered with the leaf scars of the cycad fronds that have fallen off. The beautiful patterns are where the vascular bundles of the plant — the tubes in the tree that carry water and sugars — used to connect.

You can read more about cycads in a post I wrote called “The Surprising Lives of Cycads”.

Finally, we have this mystery blob, which was scattered along a beach I visited in Queensland, Australia. I have NO idea what it is. Can anyone help? At first, I thought they might be man-made rubber. But they tore quite easily when I touched them.

Here’s another:

Finally, here’s a video of some native Australian Spinifex Hopping Mice, Notomys alexis, from the Cleland Wildlife Park in South Australia, doing what small desert rodents apparently do best: burrowing, and zipping about like electrons. And really, who can get enough of cute small rodent video?


Jennifer Frazer About the Author: Jennifer Frazer is a AAAS Science Journalism Award-winning science writer. She has degrees in biology, plant pathology/mycology, and science writing, and has spent many happy hours studying life in situ. Follow on Twitter @JenniferFrazer.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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  1. 1. TambriaMoore 3:04 pm 07/16/2012

    I was a petite little thing (how redundant) when I was a child. I recall spending wonder-filled weekends camping ( as in I had my own hatchet and slept without a tent) with my folks. I remember the sword ferns rising above my head in a Cascade forest. I remember believing that only I knew this world and only I could return to it whenever I wished. The giants around me, my older brothers and parents were not able to see my world and in it they could not see me. I’d like to go back there, but I lost my way.

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  2. 2. TambriaMoore 4:02 pm 07/16/2012

    make that bracken fern, lol

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  3. 3. way2ec 4:50 pm 07/16/2012

    Thanks for sharing these treasures from a part of our botanical wonderland that too few of us get to visit.

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  4. 4. babby 7:18 pm 07/16/2012

    Alas, Tambria, we must all grow up — unless we’re Peter Pan

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  5. 5. Christopher Taylor 8:39 pm 07/16/2012

    For the cycad lovers out there, here is a true tree cycad.

    So sorry to have to point this out, but that is a tree fern. Specifically, probably a mamaku or black tree fern Cyathea medullaris. New Zealand doesn’t have any native cycads.

    Which I’m afraid does give this post a Taxonomy Fail Index of 64.5.

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  6. 6. Jennifer Frazer in reply to Jennifer Frazer 1:02 am 07/17/2012

    You are oh-so correct! Please forgive my momentary lapse of reason — this was a dumb mistake. The leaves are obviously fern, not cycad, fronds, and I don’t know why my brain processed that wrong, especially since I wrote about tree ferns several posts ago. I even have a photograph that I did not publish of the label on the base of this plant — Cyathea. It doesn’t give the species name, but all I would have had to do was look it up. I don’t know how I got it into my head that this was a cycad. I’ll fix it, while still indicating that I made the error, post-haste! Thanks for the correction.

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  7. 7. That guy... no, the other one 1:24 am 07/17/2012

    Thanks for the article and the fantastic photos. I live in Melbourne and the forests around here are full of ferns, but I don’t often stop to look at them in any detail.

    I have an answer to your question about the ‘mysterious gelatinous blob’. It is in fact:

    a) The egg mass of a marine snail (Polinites spp). We see them washed up here quite commonly in southern Australia, though usually a tad later in the year. If you look closely at your photo you can see the eggs as dark colored spots.

    b) The name I shall adopt should I ever decide to take up a career as a professional wrestler

    Thanks again for the great post!


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  8. 8. sinann 7:05 am 07/17/2012

    Great post. Need to save up to come Down Under. Have always loved the planty critters that have survived so long. Preserve all the mosses that volunteer. I would really enjoy cultivating a variety of ferns.

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  9. 9. kdimoff 9:10 pm 07/17/2012

    ok, that taxonomy fail index is hilarious. i love it.

    i’m a big fan of no-mow yards and even though we only have a teeny tiny yard, we have let it fill up with native ferns, clover and moss. i heart my little fern population :)

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  10. 10. old dingo 12:38 am 07/18/2012

    The gelatinous horseshoe is the egg mass of a mollusc, a moon snail, that lives in the sand and feeds on other molluscs.
    They wash up to the shore, probably as an adaptation against predation. I have never seen anything eat one, and nor have I seen bite marks or other evidence of nibbling on them, so I assume that they are poisonous. They are found in Western Australia as well.

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  11. 11. Jennifer Frazer in reply to Jennifer Frazer 4:36 pm 07/19/2012

    Wow! Thanks for the ID on that weirdo blob. I had a feeling it was something like that, since it lacked any sort of definitive internal structure. Some sort of colonial creature also seemed possible, though. The egg cases of some other molluscs have very strange appearances as well.

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