UW-Green Bay Faculty Member Makes Exciting ‘Moss’ Discovery
In the average lawn, moss is rarely a welcome sight. (This usually indicates low soil nutrient levels and drainage issues.) But in the world of Keir Wefferling, as curator of the Fewless Herbarium at UW-Green Bay’s Cofrin Center of Biodiversity, meet moss is not only welcomed, but sometimes transformational.
This was the case one morning this fall when, accompanied by a couple of enthusiastic volunteers, Joan Berkopec and Ron Eicchorn, walking through a sedge meadow and bog in northeastern Wisconsin, came across Paludella squarrosa or “bushy fen moss”. For any passing hiker with an untrained eye, just another plant.
But the mission of this expedition was to carry out a preliminary bryological study (mossy things) of the region. And even in Wefferling’s trained eyes, it was a mossy thing he had never seen before.
“When I saw it, I didn’t know what it was. I knew it was a foam and I knew it was a foam that I had never seen before. It was just a unique look.
Wefferling knows his plants. In fact, that’s why he’s here, starting August 2020 as an assistant professor and herbarium curator. Since then, an interest in moss has developed in him. “I started my studies with flowering plants and then I moved on to ferns. It wasn’t until last year, while exploring Wisconsin, that I really started to appreciate mosses. I would say the moss is underrated and not just in its usefulness to humans. They are cool and precious in themselves.
What is also underestimated is the richness of the Fewless Herbarium of approximately 45,000 carefully dried and cataloged plant specimens, nestled in the basement of Mary Ann Cofrin Hall, next to the History Museum. Natural Richter (which is also part of the Cofrin Center for Biodiversity, housing animal specimens).
As Wefferling explains, just like the plants themselves, it is a museum that leads a quiet existence. “All the specimens are in cupboards. To look at a specific plant, you go into that cabinet and take out the folder, bring it to a table, and open it up to look at that plant.
But that doesn’t mean the work in progress, or the plants harvested inside, aren’t important.
“The museum is not just for holding specimens, just for sitting there. Herbarium specimens are actively used for research; borrowed and loaned from other herbaria, potentially all over the world. We ship specimens to other herbaria, and someone can borrow them for a year or two.
Internship opportunities also exist for graduate students in environmental science and policy, a thriving program with currently over 30 students. And as with any undergraduate student who enjoys collecting and spending time with pressed plants, work-study opportunities are also available.
Plans are underway to photograph, digitize and upload the collection to a free and open portal to make the collection more accessible. This information would help to clarify the understanding of the geographic and ecological relationships of plants throughout the region. And this effort aligns with one of the University’s fundamental strategic priorities to have a profoundly positive impact on the environment of our region.
Regarding the impact of the discovery Paludella squarrosa in Wisconsin? Wefferling will present his findings at the Wisconsin Wetland Association meeting next February. Plus, the exact location of the mousse stays as close as a coveted patch of morels.
And for those who ask the inevitable “so what? Wefferling’s response is true to the mission of all universities: to make a new discovery, even from a humble froth, and to create new knowledge is always hectic.
“It has never been found – at least not by botanists – in the state in all the years of exploration and scientific study. And he’s probably been there the whole time. Of course, it may be known to First Nations people and is therefore not so much a “discovery” as a “discovery of western science”. Either way, the recorded knowledge of our regional flora is apparently – and exciting – incomplete. “
Stay tuned for the next chapter in search of the lost foam.
By Michael Shaw, University Marketing and Communications