Under The Ice And Snow

Photos by Margaret Foley

Like most of Western New York I decided to use the recent warm winter weather to thaw and get outside. After going back and forth about where I wanted to go hiking, I finally decided on Bear Cave Trail, a four-mile trail on the Quaker side of Allegany State Park.

After parking my car at the upper trailhead and examining the map I made my way to the trail, a sparsely marked dirt path along a rocky creek. While I was excited to hike ahead and find the bear caves, I was even more excited to stop and explore the creek.

As I began to poke around the area, I noticed that every rock and every boulder was covered in a thick, lush coat of green moss. Unlike the plants around it, the mosses appeared completely unaffected by the deep layer of snow that covered them just days ago. How could these little plants look so healthy and green after being covered by ice and snow for the past couple of weeks?

Unlike many of the green plants that we have in our area, mosses can survive and photosynthesize even during the harshest winter months. While their success is largely due to their small size, mosses have many other traits that allow them to stay active through New York’s tough winter weather.

Mosses are non-vascular plants, which means they don’t have conductive tissues like roots and stems to help them transport water and nutrients throughout their bodies. Because they lack the plumbing necessary to transport water and nutrients across large distances, most mosses are unable to grow more than a couple inches tall.

There are many advantages to being small, but one major advantage mosses have during the winter is the ability to be completely covered and protected by the snow. Snow, like a wool blanket, is an excellent insulating layer and it protects plants and animals that live close to the ground from extreme temperatures and weather. If the mosses grew any taller, they wouldn’t be able to take advantage of this natural blanket.

Growing close to the ground also has its challenges. In fact, in the plant world, growing low to the ground can be extremely detrimental. In well-established forests, large trees shade-out and outcompete saplings and herbaceous plants for vital resources. While many of these understory plants die under these low-light conditions, mosses thrive using specialized chlorophyll. This unique chlorophyll allows low-lying moss to capture the light that has been filtered through the canopy or thin layers of ice and snow.

While chlorophyll can help mosses grow under low-light conditions, even those specialized structures cannot function under several feet of snow and, like most plants, mosses cannot photosynthesize or grow without light or water. When either of those resources are limited or unavailable mosses slow down their rate of growth until they eventually become dormant. Once the unfavorable conditions have passed, mosses are able to quickly reboot their systems and start growing again. A recent study at University of Alberta found that some species of moss can survive being dormant for hundreds of years. In 2013 the university successfully revived a moss sample that had been trapped under a glacier for 400 years. With that in mind, it shouldn’t be a surprise that we have mosses that can survive being trapped under the snow for a few months at a time.

So, the next time you’re out for a hike keep an eye out for little bits of green poking up out of the snow. While the warm weather may have disappeared, the mosses that I saw just a couple of weeks ago are still there. They’re just hiding under the ice and snow.

Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling 569-2345.

Margaret Foley is a naturalist at Audubon Community Nature Center.