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Study on ‘zombie fern’ with illustrations, research by Camila Pizano published

Camila Pizano on beach
February 14, 2024
Linda Blaser

Scientific findings and illustrations of a “zombie fern” drawn by Assistant Professor of Biology Camila Pizano appeared in a scholarly research paper published in the scientific journal Ecology. The New York Times covered the findings in an article on February 25.

In a new study led by plant biology professor James Dalling from University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Pizano and others report on the discovery of a tree fern (Cyathea rojasiana) from the tropical mountain forest of Panama, which converts its old dead leaves into root structures.

Dr. Dalling made this discovery while studying the plants and nutrient dynamics of montane cloud tropical forests, characterized by very low nutrient availability due to low decomposition rates, and very old soils.

Through a mechanism never reported before, this fern, endemic to Panama, reuses “zombie leaves” by dropping them to the ground and reversing the flow of water to draw nutrients from soils. The group tested this by labelling soil nutrients with nitrogen isotopes and measuring the uptake and transfer of this element from the “zombie leaves” turned into roots to the living leaf tissues at the upper portion of the tree fern.

The New York Times covered the plant discovery in the story, “A Fern’s ‘Zombie’ Fronds Sprout Unusual Roots.”

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