Scientists Find Fern Whose Parents Are Separated By 60 Million Years Of Evolution

Sep 3, 2015
Originally published on September 3, 2015 6:21 pm
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This week is pretty quiet in a lot of workplaces.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Even here, it's quieter than usual.

SIEGEL: Once in a while, you can almost hear the plants in the office.

MARTIN: And it turns out, they actually have a story to tell.

SIEGEL: Earlier this year, NPR's science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel found that a common species of fern has a dark secret.

MARTIN: A secret that, as Geoff puts it, has researchers "frond-tic."

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Get it, "frond-tic," instead of frantic? Because ferns grow fronds instead of leaves. Yeah, anyway, Carl Rothfels is at the University of British Columbia. He's devoted his entire career to studying ferns and he's heard all the bad fern puns before.

CARL ROTHFELS: Frond-ly persuasion, things like that. Anything that uses frond-ly or friendly.

BRUMFIEL: But it's been worth it because Rothfels and his fellow researchers have made a remarkable discovery about a very odd fern.

ROTHFELS: It's something called Cystocarpium roskamianum.

BRUMFIEL: It's found in France and it's fairly common. You can even buy it at some European garden centers. But to fern researchers, it looks weird.

ROTHFELS: Yes, it looks really weird. I mean, on one level it looks like a fern.

BRUMFIEL: Quick aside, to me it looks like a normal fern. But Rothfels says this fern appears to have come from two parents that you wouldn't expect to be a couple - one lives on rocky outcrops, the other is found on the floors of forests. The two are different species from different places and yet, somehow, they get together to make this hybrid.

ROTHFELS: It is pretty much exactly in-between the two parents.

BRUMFIEL: The team's DNA analysis confirmed it. This crazy hybrid has fern researchers talking but the reason I'm talking about it on NPR is even crazier. The genetics show the parent species are really far apart.

ROTHFELS: These two ferns had been evolving independently for about 60 million years before they got back together again and were able to form this hybrid.

BRUMFIEL: 60 million years and they could still make a baby fern. That's a record. And to put it in perspective, humans and lemurs have been evolving separately for 60 million years. We definitely cannot make little baby lee-mans.

ROTHFELS: Another, at least approximately, comparable example would be an elephant mating with a manatee.

BRUMFIEL: Which would be an elephanatee?

ROTHFELS: Yeah, right. I don't know what would happen. That's well done though, that was almost as good as the fern puns.

BRUMFIEL: How is it even possible that ferns can do this? Truth is, Rothfels isn't sure. All ferns do share a similar reproductive process, so it could be that a rock-fern sperm can't tell the difference between the egg of a rock-fern and one of a forest-fern. Which he says it raises an interesting possibility - perhaps more distant hybrids would be possible with other species, if they just gave it a try.

BRUMFIEL: Are you saying that if we did get an elephant and a manatee together...

ROTHFELS: ... We'd get an elephanatee? I think most people would say that's impossible.

BRUMFIEL: But it might be possible that other ferns could get together and their hybrids might teach researchers about how evolution and reproduction work.

Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.