60-Second Science

Plant Spores Hitch Long-Distance Feather Rides

Tiny spores from mosses, algae and lichens can stick in bird feathers, travel from the Arctic to the bottom of South America and grow into whole new specimens. Erika Beras reports 


You could be in the Arctic and spot some moss. And then you could be at the tip of South America and spot the same kind of moss—and never find it in between. So how did this particular plant get so well-traveled? Turns out it flew.   

We’ve long known that birds spread seeds. But new research says migrating birds also spread microscopic spores.

The birds harbor tiny parts of plants and lichens in their feathers, setting up similar colonies thousands of miles apart. That’s according to a study in the journal PeerJ. [Lily R. Lewis et al, First evidence of bryophyte diaspores in the plumage of transequatorial migrant birds]
Scientists inspected feathers from birds in the Arctic that were about to leave for South America. Fragments from mosses, algae, lichens and liverworts were trapped in the feathers. All of which can grow into new whole organisms.  

The researchers think that long-distance fliers such as the American golden-plover and the white-rumped sandpiper picked up the spores while lining their nests. Then when the birds arrive in new places they molt, leaving behind the feathers and their precious cargo—to start growing again at the other end of the world.

—Erika Beras

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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