Thomas' Plant-Related Blog

On plant science. Mostly.

Why moss blows smoke rings

with 6 comments

Science via Youtube today. Let’s start with some smoke rings.  They go an impressively long way—much further than a simple puff of smoke fired with the same force would:

So, why might a moss need to do the same thing?

It’s all about spores. Mosses spread by spores, a bit like microscopic seeds. For peat moss (Sphagnum), growing low on the ground in  bogs, the challenge is to catch the wind, getting its spores high enough that eddies in the air carry them away. It launches them, after building up 2–5 times atmospheric pressure behind them, but that by itself wouldn’t be enough: like a puff of smoke, the dust-like spores would quickly slow down, staying in the still air near the ground, and settling back to the ground. So they blow tiny smoke rings:

Could other plants use the same trick? Spores, pollen and the smallest seeds (such as those of orchids) could all potentially be ‘puffed’ like this. But most plants are high enough to catch the wind easily: the authors reckon it’s only about 10cm up in the bogs where peat moss lives. White mulberry, recently featured on QI as the ‘fastest thing in biology’, flings its pollen with a catapult mechanism (here’s the paper for subscribers) that couldn’t generate a ring vortex.

Maybe the best place to look would be fungi, some of which face a similar challenge to the peat moss when launching their spores. There are other ways to approach it, though. Take a look at these Pilobolus fungi, which use a ‘water pistol’ approach to launching spores (this paper is open access). Interestingly, the pressure they use to launch is similar to that in the moss.

Finally, to round off this post of Youtube science, let’s take a closer look at vortex rings (the technical name for smoke rings). They hold together by rolling through the air on the outside, while the inside’s moving forward faster. Here it is with ink in water:


Whitaker, D., & Edwards, J. (2010). Sphagnum Moss Disperses Spores with Vortex Rings Science, 329 (5990), 406-406 DOI: 10.1126/science.1190179


Written by Thomas Kluyver

24 July, 2010 at 1:55 pm

Posted in Papers

Tagged with ,

6 Responses

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by and Dwayne Litzenberger, Der Totenkopf. Der Totenkopf said: RT @ResearchBlogs: Why moss blows smoke rings […]

  2. You wanna watch out – my mum says you could have someone’s eye out with that.


    24 July, 2010 at 8:50 pm

    • With the fungus, perhaps–apparently it can launch its spore packet several feet. The moss only manages about 11cm, so I doubt it would be dangerous, except maybe if you were holding it right up to your eye when it went off.

      Thomas Kluyver

      24 July, 2010 at 9:46 pm

  3. Pilobolus also can aim the discharge of its spore packet; it’s positively phototropic. It’s easy to culture if you have access to fresh horse dung.

    The Phytophactor

    24 July, 2010 at 10:56 pm

    • Clever stuff, isn’t it? I came across it via botany photo of the day recently, and I read that it launches when the sun is low in the sky. Is there any evidence that travelling in a particular direction is adaptive, or does it just go for a shallow angle?

      Thomas Kluyver

      24 July, 2010 at 11:07 pm

  4. Here’s a similar trick employed by another fungus (Sclerotinia sclerotiorum):
    Wired Science and PNAS paper

    By launching thousands of spores together, it creates an air current which lifts them up. It’s not exactly a ring vortex, but it’s a similar solution to the same problem.

    Thomas Kluyver

    29 September, 2010 at 12:21 pm

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