Western Ghats Reveal World’s Smallest Land Fern

Indian researchers have discovered the world’s smallest land fern hiding in the Ahwa forests of the Western Ghats in Gujarat’s Dang district. According to a recent study in Scientific Reports, an international journal that publishes multidisciplinary research, the fingernail-sized fern belongs to a group known as the adder’s-tongue ferns, named after their resemblance to a snake’s tongue.

The size of the new Malvi’s adder’s-tongue fern Ophioglossum malviae – just one centimetre – is probably the reason why it remained hidden all along, said researcher Mitesh Patel of the Department of Biosciences at Surat’s Veer Narmad South Gujarat University, who stumbled across the plant during a botanical expedition in 2016.

A look at the plant’s minuscule seeds (called spores) under a powerful electron microscope revealed it had a unique thick outer layer which similar species lacked.

The researchers also analysed the plant’s DNA and found it to vary enough from its relatives to call it a new species.

Initial observations suggest that the ferns are seasonal and grow with the first monsoon rains, said Mr Patel. “They last only for a few months and new plants are born through their spores next year,” he pointed out.

The ferns are not very common even in the locality they are found in.

In fact, the researchers uncovered only 12 of these plants in the Ahwa forest division, growing alongside mosses in grasslands near Jakhana village. Since locals use the grasslands as a burial ground, conserving the species is crucial, added Mr Patel.

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