How USU researchers helped unlock desert moss mystery (with video)

Image courtesy Utah State University.

LOGAN – Scientists have long-known the moss known as Syntrichia caninervis gathers its water differently than most, but they weren’t sure how. This desert plant is able to thrive in areas where others cannot.

Utah State University’s Splash Lab, with the help of scientists from BYU, recently published research explaining the plant’s unique functions.

The plant has hair-like awns that can be up to two millimeters in length at the end of each leaf. It was previously thought the purpose of the awns were for UV protection, but research by the Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography at the Chinese Academy of Sciences proved otherwise.

When they removed the hairs, the plants struggled. It made it clear the hairs weren’t for UV protection, they were for water collection, but it was still unclear exactly how. That’s when BYU mechanical engineering graduate student Zhao Pan, BYU researcher William Pitt and USU researcher Tadd Truscott dove in.

“Things got really exciting,” Truscott said. “We got out the water and the mister and we got some high-speed cameras going.”

They were able to adjust the pressure and temperature of the air to bring it above and below the dew point. While doing so, they noticed something different than expected was happening.

“We could watch the water come out of a gaseous state to a liquid state,” he said. “We could see it was nucleating on the surface of the hair first. We were like, ‘Oh, wow, this plant is really special. It can nucleate water before the air does, slightly before.’”

But that wasn’t all. At the microscopic level, they noticed the droplets preferred to bond on the surface of the hair rather than the air. The water collected and formed droplets on barbs. When the droplets reached a certain size they rolled down onto an awn. When the awn got wet, it opened up.

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“We just looked at each other like, ‘This is so incredible. I can’t believe we get to study this,’” Truscott said.

Truscott said there may be benefits to studying the plant for future technology, but it hasn’t been looked into yet.

“In the desert air in Utah, we don’t have a lot of fog, but we do have dew pretty regularly,” he said. “There might be ways to collect small amounts of water in small patches or large amounts of water by having lots of small patches of something man-made, maybe collect dew every morning.”

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