Dinosaur plant – dinosaur not included

In the Discworld novel Maskerade, Terry Pratchett’s satirical look at the opera, one of the central characters is an opera singer named Christine. Christine is all looks with no talent, and goes breathlessly through life with very little in the way self-reflection, or thoughts of any kind. As is befitting someone with so little substance but lots of drama, all of Christine’s sentences end with exclamation points. I was reminded of Christine recently, when Brett received in the mail an unsolicited sample of “The Amazing Dinosaur Plant”.

The “Dinosaur Plant” sample was produced by DuneCraft (www.dunecraft.com), and the box is truly a thing of wonder. The are no fewer than 17 exclamation points on the outside of the box! Apparently plants don’t sell well, because there are also stylized paintings of four dinosaurs on the box (although one of them seems to be a made-up taxon), plus a pterosaur. There are also four text references to dinosaurs, including Tyrannosaurus and Brachiosaurus – that’s not including the seven mentions of the name “dinosaur plant”. It seems that even dinosaurs aren’t enough, as there’s also an erupting volcano on the box, as well as three mentions of the “lava rock” that comes in the box.

There are a few plants on the box front – groves of palm trees, cycads, and ferns, and, on the end of the box, hidden under some text, the “dinosaur plant” itself!

To be fair, if you open the box, there is additional information printed on the inside that is mostly correct (or, at least not entirely incorrect). In fact, the whole text has the feel of something written by a committee of two people; one of them with some actual scientific knowledge that was trying to rein in an overly flamboyant marketing person. The marketing person mostly won, and the result is a glaring lack of any significant information about the “dinosaur plant”, including…what it actually is!

The “dinosaur plant” is the spikemoss Selaginella lepidophylla, which is a lycopod (Division Lycopodiophyta). If you’re a regular reader, you may have noticed that I’ve been mentioning lycopods a lot over the last year, both the living genus Lycopodium and various fossil specimens from the Boxley Beckley Quarry. This isn’t just a casual interest, as DB Poli and I are working on some manuscripts about lycopods. So, with my new-found interest in this group it was a pleasant surprise to have one mailed to my home!

So, what is it about Selaginella that justifies a full-scale dinosaur marketing blitz? Another popular name for Selaginella is “resurrection plant”. This is a reference to its impressive desiccation adaptations; in the absence of water Selaginella curls into a tight ball and goes dormant. It can survive in this state for at least 50 years! Interestingly, it seems that curling into a ball is not so much for water loss as for preventing damage caused by excessive sunlight (Lebkuecher and Eickmeier, 1993).

Selaginella is just as impressive when it’s exposed to water and come out of dormancy; it reopens within 3 hours! I made the time-lapse sequence below by photographing Brett’s specimen every 5 minutes for 7.25 hours:

Setting aside my derision of DuneCraft’s marketing, Selaginella is a very cool plant to have around. Besides being a useful teaching tool for adaptations and paleobotany (as one of the only easily-obtained lycopods), it’s also neat to watch the plant spring open in just a few hours, and it doesn’t die if you forget to water it!

!!!!!!!!!!

Reference:

Lebkuecher, J. G. and W. G. Eickmeier, 1993. Physiological benefits of stem curling for resurrection plants in the field. Ecology 74:1073-1080.
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