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Desert Moss Beats Heat by Growing Under Quartz Crystals

Researchers find the translucent rocks keep the moss moist while letting just enough light pass through its milky interior

A unique moss species thrives underneath translucent quartz rocks in the hot, dry Mojave Desert while its neighbors shrivel. (UC Berkeley / Kirsten Fischer)
smithsonianmag.com

Despite what wellness gurus may say, no scientific research supports the idea that crystals boost human health—apart from the placebo effect, which can be powerful. But new research reveals that a type of desert moss gets genuine benefits from living under quartz crystals, reports Sabrina Imbler for the New York Times.

To survive in the hot, arid Mojave Desert, the moss Syntrichia caninervis needs to avoid drying out but also needs to catch a few rays to photosynthesize and keep growing. The moss manages to strike this perfect, yoga-like balance by growing beneath translucent quartz blocks.

The quartz’s cloudy interior filters out much of the sun’s desiccating radiation, which keeps things wetter than the surrounding environment, but just enough light sneaks through to keep the moss’s green engine running, the researchers reported last month in the journal PLOS ONE. The quartz also keeps the moss warmer when the temperature drops in the winter, reports Paul Simons for the Guardian.

The researchers encountered the moss’ new agey life strategy somewhat by accident.

“We were there (in the Mojave) studying the population biology and reproductive biology of mosses, and picking up these cool quartz rocks, like, oh look at this pretty rock,” Jenna Ekwealor, a graduate student studying plant biology at the University of California Berkeley and first author of the new research, says in a statement.

Speaking with the Times, Kirsten Fisher, a biologist at California State University, Los Angeles and co-author of the paper, describes her reaction when she discovered a verdant tuft of moss beneath the quartz: “I said, ‘Holy moly, there’s moss under this rock.’”

In the coming weeks, the pair turned over more pieces of quartz, and consistently found more moss.

“In the desert, for all organisms, it is like life or death all the time,” Ekwealor says in the statement. “So anytime you can find a little boost, a little benefit, it makes a really big difference.”

When the researchers set up a formal study of the phenomenon, they found the moss could be picky about the dimensions and properties of its stone shelter, according to the Guardian. Most of the moss-harboring quartz pieces were roughly an inch thick and were sufficiently clear to allow some 4 percent of sunlight to reach the plant below. Outside these parameters, the quartz would either offer too much or not enough protection from the elements.

Using sensors wedged under some of these hunks of quartz, the researchers found the stones kept things twice as humid as the surrounding environment and buffered swings in temperature by 7 degrees Fahrenheit in either direction, according to the Times.

This moss isn’t the only life form known to take advantage of the unique perks found underneath semi-transparent rocks. Hardy cyanobacteria, studied by astrobiologists looking for organisms that might survive elsewhere in the solar system, also live under translucent minerals, per the Guardian. The Syntrichia caninervis moss is the first plant known to adopt the strategy.

“I hope people start flipping rocks to see what else is out there,” Ekwealor tells the Times. “And gently placing them back down again, so the moss can survive.”

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