Bay Area scientist is mad for moss

Wednesday, October 21, 2015
Bay Area scientist is mad for moss
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A volunteer team at the California Academy of Sciences has reached a milestone in its research collection of bryophytes.

SAN FRANCISCO -- A volunteer team at the California Academy of Sciences has reached a milestone in its research collection. The academy now has more than 100,000 specimens of a plant group called bryophytes. Bryophytes include moss and liverworts. They may not sound exciting, but they are critical to the environment and a lot more beautiful than many realize.

Moss can be an important indicator of climate change and even measure excessive air pollution. Showy flowering plants tend to attract a lot more research, so it takes a special person to dedicate his life unlocking the secrets of moss. That person is academy research fellow Jim Shevock.

Shevock spent his career as a botanist for the federal government. When he retired six years ago, he began volunteering with the academy. Shevock has traveled all over the world, trekking up mountains, through tropical rain forests, climbing trees and scrambling over rocks to find new species of moss and liverworts.

When he's in the Bay Area, Shevock spends seven days a week at the academy studying and preserving specimens, along with a small team of other dedicated volunteers.

Volunteer Sherry Singer says she's inspired by Shevock's "fearlessness to go out in unbelievable places in the world for his love of bryophytes." The team examines specimens collected by academy scientists, as well as specimens they get by trading with other research institutions. In the past five years, their work has helped the academy double the number of bryophyte specimens from 50,000 to 100,000.

Shevock says there is a lot to learn from bryophytes. They are the oldest land plants on earth and have weathered climate change for millions of years. They can play a critical role in the environment, soaking up water in wet periods, then releasing it during dry spells.

Many mosses can be completely dry for years, but come back to life with just a few drops of water. Most have leaves that are only one cell thick. Under the microscope, the cells look like stained glass windows, with a wide range of shapes and colors that are used to identify each species.

Shevock says one of his main goals is mentoring the next generation of scientists, showing them the hidden beauty of bryophytes to keep the study of this ancient plant group moving into the future.

The academy is always looking for more volunteers in both botany and other departments. Click here for more information.

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney.