Monday Organism: To Everything, Fern, Fern, Fern


Back in the old forum days, I used to write on specific organisms frequently. Now that I’m doing Botany, I think this little spot would be missing a lot if I didn’t give some spotlight to the greater picture, especially in regard to groups of organisms most of us take for granted, such as plants.

This last week brought us undergrads face-to-face , for the first time,  with real hardcore terrestrial plants, and the first such plants were a group of organisms called Ferns.

Even though I’m alt-tabbing the wiki article for fact verification (and digging up fun facts as well), I can, sans wiki, sum up  what are the interesting differences between Ferns and all the other plant taxa we’ve learnt of so far.

Ferns are similar to mosses in some respects, and like mosses and all evolutionary descendants of mosses, they’re embryonic plants, with distinct sporophytic stages that develops from a protected embryo that is grown and shielded within the parent fern.

Ferns actually have independent sporophytic stages, which is a bit odd. Flowering plants don’t have that, and neither do mosses (which can be very roughly considered the evolutionary “befores and afters” of Ferns). In mosses, the sporophyte is, if not completely “parasitic” on top of the gametophyte, is still an attached (above-ground) outgrowth of it.

In flowering plants, the gametophyte is situated atop the sporophyte, which is the reverse for mosses. I won’t get any deeper into that, since I haven’t studied about them yet 🙂

Ferns are distinguished in the plant kingdom as the first truly Vascular Plants. It’s not that more primitive plants don’t have some means of relaying organic material and water around the body of the plant, but in Ferns, we witness the first instance of complex, all-body vascular organs, namely, the Xylem and the Phloem. The X and P are just fancy words for “tube for shifting organic compounds” and “tube for shifting water”, respectively. As the first hardcore terrestrial plants, vascular organs are a must-have adaptation. Growing taller is a logistic nightmare, but with the enormous selection pressure on short plants that compete on the same sunlight, it’s a must. It’s a good evolutionary explanation for why those Ferns went through all the trouble, and this is actually a distinguishing feature in Ferns: they’re specialists. Their penchant for being taller is just the tip of the iceberg (they’re also adapted to hostile habitats, habitats which constrain the flowering plants but not Ferns).

The most revealing innovation in Ferns is the organ that most of us seem to readily associate with plants: Leaves.

To begin with, I was simply delighted to finally understand what this organ actually is. Up until next week, leaves to me, as they are to most laymen, were simply “green bits on them flowers and whatnot”. There’s more to that, or merely, a more accurate description. Leaves are firstly defined as the photosynthetic organs. In short, what the mouth does for heterotrophs like us, the leaves do for autotrophs like plants. In short, it’s the plant’s way of getting chow. Up until now, photosynthesis wasn’t confined to specialized organs, and hence, leaves are  truly a hallmark of evolutionary innovation.

As an aside, it’s interesting to note that evolutionary innovations are often a precursor to two things:
A.Enormous comparative fitness (evolutionarily-speaking, as opposed to simpler organisms)
B.An evolutionary dead-end. Jacks-of-all-trades have more “promotion possibilities” than “Masters-of-one-trade”. This is why bacteria outlived many metazoa (and will probably outlast us!)

Since I’m an evolution afficionado, I want to have the finishing part of this post to focus on some interesting evolutionary tale, but I think I can combine that with some cool info on Ferns in general. What I mean by that is that you can actually see for yourself the evolutionary “nodes” in Fern evolution by observing the various stages of leaf evolution.
Like Is said, leaves are the photosynthetic organs of plants, but leaves haven’t sprouted de novo out of ancient moss-like thalluses (even though even weeds have leaflike apparatuses).

The first instance of leaves comes in the shape of protophylls (ancient leaves). Protophylls are nothing but dandruff like scales without any actual vascular tubes for carrying the photosynthetic products to the body of the plant. Since the protophylls are usually small and aggregate, this is not a big problem, and obviously this is an ample condition for evolutionary advance: now that we have the specialization in order, all we have to do is grow some tubes. 🙂

Psilotum - a protophyllic fern

Psilotum - a protophyllic fern

The second and third stages of leaf evolution are very similar: Microphylls and Macrophylls. The noted difference between the two is that microphylls have only one artery-like tube and macrophylls have a branching like web of vascular tubes. It’s quite easy to imagine how one evolved to the other, but not so easy to come up with how protophylls evolved into either, or should I say, to one and then the other. 🙂

Lycopodium - a microphyllic fern

Lycopodium - a microphyllic fern

So, yet again, we come across an oft-taken-for-granted plant group and find that it tells us fascinating evolutionary stories. Mainly, that those cheeky bastards are opportunistic little buggers that probably gave us the precursors for modern plants, meaning that Shakespeare and other like-minded cupid-heads should give them some credit. The true journey to dry land starts with Ferns, and so the true evolution for the plants we hold as familiar starts with them.

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3 Responses to “Monday Organism: To Everything, Fern, Fern, Fern”

  1. crazyasuka Says:

    I didn’t know any of that, thanks!

    I find it interesting that non specialized organism are more likely to last for a long time after us more specialized organisms are gone. It makes sense of course.

  2. freidenker85 Says:

    I’m so glad someone actually wasn’t scared to read about Ferns! I thought that plants are dead boring, too. Well, they are quite boring, but they can tell an interesting story if you look hard into them enough.

    Also, a minor correction: it’s not that non specialized organisms are more likely to “last longer”, it’s that *species* (first little error) last long if they stay “generalized” for long enough time in a way that doesn’t make it a “dead end” for them. It’s important to note that “‘staying alive” doesn’t mean “not dying”! I’ll try to explain what I mean.

    If a species is specialized – he’ll be most adapted to where he is, and he’ll be better at it than all the “general species”, but the general species are more “adaptable” – so any member of the general species can much more readily evolve to cope with new changes in the environment. When a species evolves a special trait, he has to work with what he has, and it’s possible that it’ll be harder for him to adapt now that he’s got special organs.

    Take the Panda, for example. It evolved a thumb even though it has frontal fingers (like most predators) – it was constrained to evolution to evolve in a rather bad way because it was already specialized and now it had to evolve again to keep itself from being extinct.

    With bacteria, all it takes is a few generations and woop: you got yourself resistant strains.

  3. Monday Organism: Strange Mammals! « Obsessed with reality Says:

    […] and also, not going to be about one organism. Since I rather keep these posts non-technical (not an easy thing to do), I’m going to write a little exposee on two truly amazing mammals:  the Aye-Aye and the […]

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