Marcos Fernández‐Martínez is a FWO post-doc at the University of Antwerp (Belgium). In this Insight, he talks about his recent paper looking at how moss characteristics change depending on their evolutionary history and the climate and water chemistry of where they live.

About the paper

What’s your paper about?

In our paper, we investigate whether functional traits of aquatic and semi-aquatic mosses (i.e., hygrophytic) are related to water chemistry, climate and the evolutionary history of the species. To do so, we sampled 303 semi-natural springs across the north-east of the Iberian Peninsula (Catalonia), from which we analysed water chemistry and moss assemblages. But, why do we talk about “semi-natural” springs? The springs we surveyed are small man-made constructions that drain water from a mine or a naturally occurring source of water. They are usually composed of a spout, a rocky wall and a sink, but the level of human intervention changes depending on the spring. These springs, though, are an ideal habitat for hygrophytic mosses because water runs off continuously throughout the year. This means that springs behave like islands of water availability surrounded by dry environments, becoming true hotspots of biodiversity that do not often comprise more than one square metre.

What is the background behind your paper?

The study of functional traits has a long history in vascular plants, but regarding to mosses, literature relating functional traits and environmental variation is still very scarce. This is actually surprising, given that mosses are well known to be very sensitive to environmental changes due to their simplicity (i.e., lack of thick cuticles and true roots). Additionally, studying “simple” non-vascular plants like mosses may allow a better understanding about how more complex ones (i.e., vascular plants) work or may have evolved.

How did you come up with the idea for it?

Actually, the idea of studying springs and moss communities started six years ago, in 2013, when a group of volunteers (authors of the study and others) of the Science Section of the Museum of Mataró (Catalonia) started what we called the Springs Project (“Projecte Fonts” in Catalan, see #ProjecteFonts in Twitter). After more than 40 years of naturalistic activity around the Maresme region, in 2015, the group joined the Catalan Institution of Natural History (ICHN) and became the Delegation of the Central Littoral Mountain Range. In 2015, two papers presenting the first results of the Springs Project were published in our own journal of science divulgation, l’Atzavara.

Soon after, the project was funded by the Institute of Catalan Studies (IEC) allowing us to continue sampling more and more springs across Catalonia. Because we were gathering really good data, we thought it would be a good idea that bachelor’s and master´s students could collaborate with us for their final degree projects. One such student was Ferran Berloso (second author of the paper), whose master’s project eventually became the present paper in Functional Ecology. The final idea of studying functional traits in mosses came directly from field observations: when collecting moss samples, we realised that they looked different depending on whether the water from the spring was hard or soft. Eventually, our results confirmed our initial observations and allowed us to hypothesise the presence of a connection between water conductivity and sclerophylly in hygrophytic mosses.

What are the key messages of your article?

We found that moss traits are indeed linked to water chemistry of the springs, and that their evolutionary history has also played a role shaping these traits. Additionally, we found that phylogenetically close species are usually spatially aggregated at a regional scale because of similarities in their traits and the spatial autocorrelation of water chemistry due to lithological blocks.

Does this article raise any new research questions?

Yes! Many new questions arise from our research. Particularly, we wonder whether plasticity in those measured moss traits is also present within species. We are, indeed, very interested in continuing this line of research. Additionally, it is well known that different leaf traits are related to different elemental compositions in vascular plants. We will also try to relate moss elemental composition to functional traits thanks to one BES (British Ecological Society) Small Grant that I have recently obtained to study the plasticity in the elemental composition of mosses in our springs. Hopefully, we will soon be able to provide new and very interesting results on that matter.

About the research

What is the broader impact of your paper?

Our results can help to improve our understanding on plants distribution and evolution. Additionally, one of the advantages of working with “simple organisms is that studying potential mechanisms driving observations is usually more straightforward than for vascular plants.

Did you have any problems setting up the experiment or gathering your data?

Well, this project started as volunteer work, so already finding time to sample mosses and springs was challenging. However, the good results obtained early in the project allowed some of us to devote some time of our research to it, making it easier to deal with. Funding is also extremely difficult to acquire. Bryophyte ecology is not really considered high impact research, so getting funds is very challenging. However, thanks to the BES Small Grant, we really expect to push the field forward.

Where you surprised by anything when working on it?

Yes, we were. Firstly, the large diversity of bryophytes that can live in these small environments (we have found more than 70 species of mosses and liverworts across all springs). Secondly, each spring seems to be rather unique in terms of species present because of their isolation. Finding rare species in a spring is very likely. This makes these environments extremely valuable as refuge for biodiversity conservation.

About The Author

Marcos Fernández-Martínez by a spring
Marcos Fernández-Martínez by a spring

How did you get involved in ecology?

From a young age, I have always loved being in the mountains and observing what goes on there. Later, I studied environmental sciences, which is a rather multidisciplinary degree. This allowed me to have a taste for plenty of disciplines, from which I particularly found ecology to be the most interesting (again, probably because of its intrinsic multidisciplinarity). Good teachers, field trips and probably the shadow of Prof. Ramón Margalef (who passed away just the year before I started my bachelor’s) probably contributed to my final decision of pursuing a PhD in ecology.

What are you currently working on?

I am still navigating between different disciplines, all related to ecology. My PhD was focused on the carbon balance of forests at the global scale and on tree masting behaviour. I am still working on that, but joining it with the fields of biodiversity-ecosystem functioning and ecological stoichiometry. Bryophyte ecology is another of my passions, which I will soon join to the ecological stoichiometry field as well. Finally, I am also working on non-linear dynamics of the carbon cycle.

What project/article are you most proud of?

This is difficult to say, but definitely, this paper is one of them as it has revealed interesting results coming from what it is actually a hobby of ours. The fact that it has been published in Functional Ecology is an extra argument for being proud of it!

What is the best thing about being an ecologist?

I get to spend some time in nature!

What is the worst thing about being an ecologist?

That you are probably more aware of the environmental disasters going on in the world. It makes me feel quite powerless when you see no real commitment from politicians and society to stop climate change, large-scale pollution and local damage to natural resources (we sadly have plenty of that in Catalonia, we will try to make it better).

What do you do in your spare time?

I sample springs and mosses, of course! It is a hobby that is easily compatible with some other hobbies like trekking, running, looking for nice rivers to swim (in summer!), and having tasty traditional meals in restaurants. Back in the city I play football, squash and swim regularly. I also enjoy reading about local history, traditions and legends. I would really like to read something like “Ecosystems during the middle ages”. I am afraid I will still have to wait…

One piece of advice for someone in your field…

That is probably the most difficult question, and I am probably not the most suitable person to give advice to anyone. I would probably advise people in my field(s) to broaden their research interests to different types of organisms or biological systems, because I find that devoting efforts to secondary research lines is often helpful in order to see the big picture. But especially for anyone working in ecology, enjoy what you do!

You can read the paper in full here or the plain language summary here.