Field of Science

It's Not What You Think

A little less than a year ago, I mentioned the strange and extremely cool phenomenon of independent gametophytes in ferns - cases where the tiny haploid gametophyte generation of a fern is able to reproduce asexually and hang around as a plant that, to the untrained eye, wouldn't look much like a fern at all. In that post, I said that independent gametophytes were known for "a single species of Grammitidaceae, two Vittariaceae and nine Hymenophyllaceae". A paper just out in Plant Systematics and Evolution (Li et al., 2009) identifies another independent gametophyte - and this is the most mind-blowing of all. Not only does it come from a family for which independent gametophytes have not previously been recorded, but it turns out to have been hiding in very plain view.

This is it! (Photo from here.)

Süßwassertang (or "suesswassertang") is a plant that people in Europe and North America have been growing in their aquaria for a few years now (the name is German for "freshwater seaweed"). Specimens are propagated vegetatively by simply breaking them apart. I haven't been able to find out exactly where it originally came from - internet fora refer to a probable source from a German botanic garden, but it seems that specimens have mostly been passed around by private individuals (see this discussion, for instance). The original assumption seems to have been that it was some sort of liverwort, like a similar-looking aquarium plant known as Monosolenium tenerum or Pellia* (in fact, Süßwassertang has also been referred to as "round pellia", in reference to its different growth habit from true pellia). However, rarely produced gametangia (reproductive organs) suggested that it may be a fern gametophyte instead, and this has been confirmed by Li et al. through molecular analysis.

*It originally appeared on the market as Pellia, but has since been re-designated Monosolenium tenerum (see here). The Wikipedia page on Monosolenium suggests that this may also be wrong, but doesn't give any sources for this claim. Liverworts are far from easy to identify, so it's not outside the realms of possibility.

Süßwassertang turns out to be very closely related to Lomariopsis lineata in the Lomariopsidaceae, which looks like this (photo by Julie Barcelona):

Lomariopsis lineata is an Asian species of the pantropical epiphytic fern genus Lomariopsis, members of which can climb up trees on long running stems to heights of ten metres (Rouhan et al., 2007). That an arboreal fern could produce an independent gametophyte is surprising - that such a gametophyte should be aquatic is incredible. A number of websites have already started referring to Süßwassertang as Lomariopsis lineata, but this is jumping the gun a little. To date, no Süßwassertang specimens have been successfully induced to produce sporophytes, despite their occassional production of gametangia (normally in ferns, gametophytes produce male and female gametangia, the gametes from which fertilise each other and grow into sporophytes). Even when Süßwassertang were transplanted into terrestrial conditions, no sporophytes were produced though gametangia production increased (on the other hand, their growth was much reduced). Süßwassertang has so far only been demonstrated to be extremely close to L. lineata, not necessarily identical with it.

As alluded to in the previous post, independent gametophytes may be able to survive in conditions which their relevant sporophytes would find intolerable. The Süßwassertang would seem to be one of the ultimate examples.


Li, F.-W., B. C. Tan, V. Buchbender, R. C. Moran, G. Rouhan, C.-N. Wang & D. Quandt. 2009. Identifying a mysterious aquatic fern gametophyte. Plant Systematics and Evolution 281 (1): 77-86.

Rouhan, G., J. G. Hanks, D. McClelland & R. C. Moran. 2007. Preliminary phylogenetic analysis of the fern genus Lomariopsis (Lomariopsidaceae). Brittonia 59 (2): 115-128.


  1. That is facinating. Is it possible that it has totally lost its ability to produce sporophytes? After all, it seems awfully easy to propagate it vegetatively.

  2. Just wanted to second what Corneel said. I wonder if this is a sort of pedomorphosis (sorry - paedomorphosis)?

  3. Corneel: Entirely possible, I suppose. I really don't know what governs successful reproduction in ferns.

    Jim: I don't think "paedomorphosis" (well done for correcting your spelling :-P ) is the right term. The gametophyte isn't an earlier stage in the growth of the sporophyte, it's an entirely separate individual.

    Offhand, the Süßwassertang is a little different from other independent gametophytes in that it doesn't produce gemmae (asexually produced offshoots that break off to become new individuals, like the "chickens" on a hen-and-chickens fern). Rather, Süßwassertang just grows continually in its normal way and will only multiply if mechanically divided. I'm wondering if that has different implications for the long-term persistence of this form.

  4. it me, or have you made a turn for the phyto- and arthropodo- pornographica recently?


    I couldn't resist...

  5. Süßwassertang just grows continually in its normal way and will only multiply if mechanically divided. I'm wondering if that has different implications for the long-term persistence of this form.

    I don't think that's a problem if mechanical disturbances are common. That would basically mean that this is an asexual lineage. What makes it weird, is that it's the haploid phase that has started its own show. I think that makes it more vulnerable to Muller's ratchet (because it expresses all mutations), and that would mean this is an evolutionary dead end.
    Alas, this is all speculation, of course.


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