Ecological and evolutionary consequences of desiccation tolerance in tropical fern gametophytes


Author for correspondence: James E. Watkins Tel: +1 617 4963580 Fax: +1 617 4965854 Email:


  • • Ferns have radiated into the same diverse environments as spermatophytes, and have done so with an independent gametophyte that is not protected by the parent plant. The degree and extent of desiccation tolerance (DT) in the gametophytes of tropical fern species was assessed to understand mechanisms that have allowed ferns to radiate into a diversity of habitats.
  • • Species from several functional groups were subjected to a series of desiccation events, including varying degrees of intensity and multiple desiccation cycles. Measurements of chlorophyll fluorescence were used to assess recovery ability and compared with species ecology and gametophyte morphology.
  • • It is shown that vegetative DT (rare in vascular plants) is widely exhibited in fern gametophytes and the degree of tolerance is linked to species habitat preference. It is proposed that gametophyte morphology influences water-holding capacity, a novel mechanism that may help to explain how ferns have radiated into drought-prone habitats.
  • • Fern gametophytes have often been portrayed as extreme mesophytes with little tolerance for desiccation. The discovery of DT in gametophytes holds potential for improving our understanding of both the controls on fern species distribution and their evolution. It also advances a new system with which to study the evolution of DT in vascular plants.