Scientists want YOU to help them study amphibious lil plants

Toddlers, teens and retirees are helping researchers understand how tiny plants respond to climate change.

Moss on a tree.
Moss on a tree.Pexels

Kalman Strauss is a 16-year-old high school sophomore in Chicago. He has been fascinated by bryophytes — eyelash-sized plants, such as mosses, liverworts, and hornworts — since he discovered them at age 12 while reading a botany textbook. “I’d always loved these little plants and noticed them when I went hiking, but learning about them made me more interested than ever,” he said. “Unfortunately, these microscopic plants can be very difficult to study and identify on your own.” So he was ecstatic upon hearing he could become a citizen scientist for the Field Museum in Chicago and participate in an ongoing study focused on these tiny plants — specifically liverworts — to learn more about the impact of climate change. Strauss has done everything from measuring and imaging specimens to conducting workshops that teach bryophytes basics. “I’ve had the pleasure of seeing lots of different people get introduced to these beautiful little plants,” Strauss said. And if that’s not enough, he’s also listed as a coauthor on a recently published paper in the journal Applications in Plant Sciences. “It’s a huge honor,” he said.

Bryophytes.
Bryophytes.The Field Museum

Liverworts are the second largest group of land plants (after flowering plants) and are the living descendants of plants that transitioned from water to land more than 400 million years ago. “They are the plant equivalent of amphibians,” said Matt von Konrat, the museum’s collection manager of plants and lead author of the study, who likes to assure museum visitors that liverworts is not a disease and “it’s not catching.” Liverworts reproduce by spores, unlike flowering plants that reproduce with seeds, and — also unlike flowering plants — liverworts have no vascular system.

More importantly, liverworts — so named because their leaves are liver- shaped — can serve as effective early monitors of the effects of climate change even before the rest of the habitat or ecosystem is affected, von Konrat said. This is due to their small size and their unique physiology compared to flowering plants and animals, including the fact that they lack a complex vascular system. "Because of these attributes and their sensitivity, they respond more rapidly to environmental change," he said. "If you're smaller in size, you're less resilient.

“Many people are familiar with how frogs are very sensitive to pollution and environmental change — liverworts are the plant equivalent. They can indicate the health of the very ecosystem we live in — therefore, very important in land management and conservation decisions,” von Konrat said.

Kalman Strauss working with Matt von Konrat.
Kalman Strauss working with Matt von Konrat.The Field Museum

Liverwort distribution patterns could change in response to rising temperatures, and possibly the pace of their growth, he said. "Different species will respond differently," he said. "Some may move north, some may climb in elevation. Some may grow more rapidly, some may slow down. The key is to finding those that do respond, because those will become your indicator species." The museum project is seeking to identify all liverwort species — and discover new ones — in order to "serve as a baseline for answering these questions," he said.

Von Konrat laments that society suffers from what he calls plant “blindness,” a condition he is working to change. “If we played a game and I showed you a series of images of plants, birds, mammals, humans, insects, my bet is you might recall specific details about everything, but many may fail to provide those same details about plants,” he said. “Yet, plants are responsible for the air we breathe, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, in fact, life itself. Liverworts are simply tiny plants. Yet, they can unlock stories of the past in deep evolutionary time and give us insight into early land plant evolution.”

But, as Strauss pointed out, they are tough to study. The distinctions among different liverwort species can be seen only by looking through a microscope, and there are about 10,000 known species. Moreover, analyzing the details of hundreds of thousands of images of microscopic leaves isn’t easy. “It’s tedious for one individual to go through these photos for hours on end, but if you get 100 people to do it for five minutes each, it’s a lot easier,” von Konrat said.

Unknown liverwort species under the microscope.
Unknown liverwort species under the microscope.The Field Museum

With that in mind, the Microplants project enlisted the help of more than 11,000 volunteers willing to spend time analyzing liverwort photos, either remotely online or via an in-person digital kiosk at one of the museum's exhibitions. They used the online platform Zooniverse to conduct the research. There were no age restrictions or special qualifications.

“Typically, participants ranged from about age six or seven through to retired adults” von Konrat said. “The youngest, though, was a young girl named Eve, age four, and she produced great results. Typically, though, they were teenagers or young adults, with 80 percent over the age of 19.”

Joann Martinec, 61, a retired computer programmer — and another of the study’s coauthors — was among them. She signed up so she could continue feeding her lifelong passion for nature. “Growing up, my family spent most of our free time outside, looking for birds, plants, and seashells,” she said. “Science, ecology, and sustainability have always been a part of my life.”

Drawing by Eve, four-year-old citizen scientist.
Drawing by Eve, four-year-old citizen scientist.The Field Museum

The project conducted follow-up surveys to gauge the experience. “Most users felt they gained a better understanding of the processes in science and a large majority had a positive experience using the site,” von Konrat said. “When asked if this activity provided a better understanding of the process that scientists use in research, the majority, 79 percent, responded positively.”

Still, it wasn’t for everyone. “Some students spent an hour using the site and said they felt it incredibly boring and tedious,” von Konrat said. “One student said: ‘bored out of my skull.’ It illustrated that not all science and research is flashy, or has immediate impact. Science is a process, methodical. That being said, almost all of the students said they came away with a better understanding of the scientific method. Also, over 75 percent said they will now pay more attention to science in the news, or read about science.”

Martinec, who has been involved for more than two years, believes in science and community engagement, one of the reasons she was drawn to participate. “I love that this project can be used in the classroom, and that younger children are both engaged by it and can make an important contribution,” she said.

Indeed, von Konrat cites a drawing that Eve — the four-year-old girl — created and sent to him after she helped with the research. It depicts heart-shaped liverwort leaves and von Konrat, declaring in a speech bubble, “Her [sic] is a now [sic] species.”

“Eve is the source of inspiration for us all,” von Konrat said. “She is our next generation of scientific leaders.”

Marlene Cimons writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.