Field of Science

Cliff Ferns

Historically, the higher classification of ferns has tended to be a bit wobbly. Compared to flowering plants, ferns often offer fewer readily observable features that may offer clues to relationships. As a result, the position of many fern taxa has long been uncertain. One such group is the cliff ferns of the genus Woodsia.

Woodsia scopulina, copyright Jim Morefield.

Cliff ferns, as their name suggests, are commonly found growing on rocks. There are a few dozen species, mostly found in cooler regions of the Northern Hemisphere. A single species, Woodsia montevidensis, extends into South America and southern Africa (Rothfels et al. 2012). They have short creeping rhizomes with a covering of scales and leaves bearing a mixture of scales and hairs. The most distinctive feature of the cliff ferns can only be seen on fertile fronds: the sori (spore packets) are covered by an indusium that is attached to the leaf basally relative to the sori. These indusia are commonly composed of an array of scales or filamentous sections, in contrast to the solid indusia of other ferns.

Underside of pinnule of Woodsia plummerae, showing the filamentous indusia, from here.

Historically, Woodsia has been placed in a family Woodsia with a number of superficially similar fern genera such as the bladder ferns of the genus Cystopteris. However, molecular phylogenetic analyses have disputed the monophyly of such a group. Rothfels et al. (2012) divided the 'woodsioid' ferns between no less than six different families with Woodsiaceae in the strict sense limited to the cliff ferns alone. Though some authors have divided the cliff ferns between multiple genera, an analysis of the group by Shao et al. (2015) found it difficult to reliably distinguish such subgroups and recommended recognition of only a single genus. They did, however, recognise three major clades within Woodsia identified by molecular phylogenetic analysis as distinct subgenera. The type subgenus Woodsia is distinctive among ferns in possessing articulated stems; species of this subgenus are widespread in the Palaearctic region. The subgenus Physematium is mostly found in the Americas and is characterised by bicolored scales on the rhizome. The third subgenus, Cheilanthopsis, is found in eastern Asia with the centre of diversity in the Himalayan region. The rhizome scales are concolorous, and the indusia are solid and globose rather than being composed of individual segments. In some cases in this subgenus, the sori are covered by 'false indusia', indusium-like structures that are formed from inrolled leaf margins rather than being independent membranes.


Rothfels, C. J., M. A. Sundue, L.-Y. Kuo, A. Larsson, M. Kato, E. Schuettpelz & K. M. Pryer. 2012. A revised family-level classification for eupolypod II ferns (Polypodiidae: Polypodiales). Taxon 61 (3): 515–533.

Shao, Y., R. Wei, X. Zhang & Q. Xiang. 2015. Molecular phylogeny of the cliff ferns (Woodsiaceae: Polypodiales) with a proposed infrageneric classification. PLoS One 10 (9): e0136318.

The Solemyoida: A Taste for Sulphur

Atlantic awning clam Solemya velum, copyright Guus Roeselers.

The small bivalves that make up the Solemyoida were long a mystery, ecology-wise. Though they have a long history, potentially going back as far as the Ordovician (Cope 2000), they are not known to have ever been diverse, and only just over fifty species are known from the modern fauna. Living solemyoids are divided between two very distinct families that probably diverged near the origin of the group. The Solemyidae, awning clams, have relatively long shells that gape at each end, no teeth in the dorsal hinge, and tend to have an unusually thick periostracum (the overlying layer of horny proteinaceous matter that covers the outside of the mineral shell). They generally live in burrows buried deep in sediment. The Nucinellidae are a group of minute clams with an average length of about half a centimetre that are mostly found in deep waters, generally not buried quite so deep in the mud as the awning clams. They have a less elongate shell than the Solemyidae that does not gape and simple peg-like teeth in the hinge. What the two families do share is a markedly reduced gut and feeding appendages that initially caused much speculation about what exactly they were feeding on.

Nucinella sp. with foot extended, from Taylor & Glover (2010). Scale bar equals 1 mm.

The answer, as it turns out, was that they were not exactly 'feeding' on much, if anything. Solemyoids have relatively large gills that provide a comfortable living place for sulphur-oxidising bacteria, sheltered from the outside world while the host clam keeps up a continuous flow of water through its burrow from above the sediment surface. In return, the bacteria fix hydrogen sulphide rising from the underlying mud to provide both themselves and their host with nutrients. In this way, solemyoids have largely been able to get by without actively eating for close to 450 million years, achieving something the likes of Jasmuheen can only dream of.


Cope, J. C. W. 2000. A new look at early bivalve phylogeny. In: Harper, E. M., J. D. Taylor & J. A. Crame (eds) The Evolutionary Biology of the Bivalvia pp. 81–95. The Geological Society: London.

The Ageniellini: Nest Evolution in Spider Wasps

The Pompilidae, commonly known as spider wasps or spider hawks, are a distinctive and often conspicuous group of wasps, well known for their practice of capturing spiders and sealing them paralysed into nest cells to serve as food for their developing larvae. Though spider hawks come in a wide range of sizes and colours, I can say from experience that they are often a challenging group of animals to work with taxonomically. Their superficial diversity often masks a certain structural sameness that makes it hard to develop a reliable system for the family. Nevertheless, one subgroup of the pompilids that has long been recognised as distinct is the subject of today's post, the Ageniellini.

Female Ageniella arcuata carrying a lynx spider, copyright Edward Trammel.

Agniellins are generally smaller spider wasps whose distinguishing features include a more or less constricted base to the metasoma, forming a petiole. Females have a collection of relatively long, forward-directed setae on the prementum, a sclerite on the underside of the head that forms the rear margin of the mouthparts (you could think of it as the wasp's 'chin'). As befits their smaller size, they provision their nests with smaller and medium-sized spiders. As well as paralysing the spider with their sting in the usual way, ageniellins will also often remove its legs before sealing it into a cell, though Barthélémy & Pitts (2012) observed that this might not be done with small spiders. The Ageniellini have been further divided between two subtribes, the Ageniellina and Auplopodina. In Ageniellina, the premental setae are relatively fine and the end of the metasomal dorsum (the pygidium) in females is rounded and hairy. In Auplopodina, the premental setae are further modified into strong, thick bristles and the female pygidium is more or less flattened and smooth. However, the aformentioned characters of Ageniellina are primitive and shared with non-ageniellin spider wasps. A phylogenetic analysis of the Ageniellini by Shimizu et al. (2010) reinforced the suggestion that 'Ageniellina' might be paraphyletic with regard to the monophyletic Auplopodina.

Auplopus carbonarius, copyright Fritz Geller-Grimm.

Ageniellini are of particular interest among spider wasps for the variety of nesting behaviours they exhibit, which were reviewed in detail by Evans & Shimizu (1996). The primitive nesting behaviour for pompilids, shared by species of 'Ageniellina', is to dig nest cells in holes in the ground. 'Ageniellina' construct short holes from pre-existing openings in the soil such as caves, crevices or the burrows of animals. The holes are closed by patting down soil using the end of the metasoma. The origin of the Auplopodina, however, saw a seemingly small innovation that was to have significant consequences: the evolution of the ability to carry a small amount of water in the crop. Initially, this allowed the wasps to nest in firmer ground than was previously possible, using water to soften the soil before digging. Many Auplopodina species still nest in this fashion. They could also carry balls of mud under the head using the basket of premental bristles, using the mud to close up holes. Eventually, they started using mud to build barrel-shaped nest cells above ground, bypassing the need to dig, and/or closing up suitable pre-existing cavities such as hollow plant stems or abandoned cells from other wasps. The most basic mud cells are still vulnerable to damage from rain and water so are built in sheltered locations such as attached to plant rootlets protruding from overhanging banks. However, some Auplopodina species have learnt to cover the outside of the cell with a coating of resin to provide water resistance and so are able to build in more exposed places such as underneath plant branches or leaves. Species of one genus, Poecilagenia, are kleptoparasites, breaking into the nests of other pompilids and closing them back up after depositing their own eggs inside.

Macromerella honesta females on a communal nest, from Barthélémy & Pitts (2012).

The greatest advance in nesting behaviour known from a handful of Auplopodina species is the appearance of communal behaviour, potentially derived from multiple factors. The need for suitable sheltered sites for nest-building places a premium on location, increasing the likelihood of intra-specific encounters. The ability to break down and re-purpose pre-existing nest cells rather than building entirely from scratch makes it worthwhile for females to linger around their own place of hatching. In one eastern Asian species, Machaerothrix tsushimensis, dominance behaviour has been observed around nests with one female largely monopolising cell construction and provisioning while other females remain largely inactive, only constructing their own cells when the dominant female is elsewhere. In other communal Auplopodina species, females will share in the construction and guarding of nest cells.

True eusocial behaviour as found in vespid wasps and bees is unknown in pompilids. It has been suggested that their practice of provisioning brood cells only at the time of the construction, without providing subsequent meals, may be a hindrance to sociability as there is little incentive for females to provide for the larvae of other individuals. Nevertheless, the Ageniellini demonstrate that basic communality is not beyond the abilities of spider wasps.


Barthélémy, C., & J. Pitts. 2012. Observations on the nesting behavior of two agenielline spider wasps (Hymenoptera, Pompilidae) in Hong Kong, China: Macromerella honesta (Smith) and an Auplopus species. Journal of Hymenoptera Research 28: 13–35.

Evans, H. E., & A. Shimizu. 1996. The evolution of nest building and communal nesting in Ageniellini (Insecta: Hymenoptera: Pompilidae). Journal of Natural History 30 (11): 1633–1648.

Shimizu, A., M. Wasbauer & Y. Takami. 2010. Phylogeny and the evolution of nesting behaviour in the tribe Ageniellini (Insecta: Hymenoptera: Pompilidae). Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 160: 88–117.