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This zombie fern can reanimate its dead leaves to keep itself fed

Published Feb 4th, 2024 8:18PM EST
lush tree fern leaves a tropical plant
Image: Cyathea delgadii / Adobe

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Researchers have made a shocking discovery. According to a new study published in Ecology, scientists have discovered a “zombie fern” in Panama that reanimates its dead leaf fronds and turns them into roots, so that the mother plant can continue feeding.

It’s an interesting discovery that showcases just how unique and intriguing plant life on our planet can be. The researchers say that this phenomenon only happens when the dead leaves droop to the ground. After making contact with the soil, the plant seems to reanimate the leaves, embedding them deep into the soil.

From there, the zombie fern’s reanimated leaves sprout a network of rootlets that can then draw nitrogen out of the soil and into the plant. Despite being reanimated and turned into roots, the researchers say that the dead leaves still look like decayed plant matter, which is what has earned them the “zombie” moniker.

While we have seen other plants use leaves or shoots to touch the ground and sprout new roots, this is the first time it has been reported that dead tissue was being reconfigured to act as a root system. The researchers say it is most likely an adaption by the plants to survive in the nutrient-poor volcanic soils of the area.

Because Panama was created due to volcanic activity, there are often layers of volcanic ash that act like sand. This creates patchy areas within the soil, which makes it difficult for plants to survive and spread out their nutrients more adequately. As a result, the soil is very poor in nutrients. And yet, these zombie ferns have found a way to evolve beyond their means.

These tree ferns also grow very slowly, the researchers note. It is very likely they are only putting on a few centimeters of height a year, with only one or two new leaves being grown. That makes each frond a major investment for the plant, which makes this extraordinary ability even more important for the plant’s survival.

Of course, these plants aren’t the only thing to ever make use of dead tissue. Zombie mushrooms called cordyceps mushrooms infect and kill their hosts before growing off of their dead tissue.

Josh Hawkins has been writing for over a decade, covering science, gaming, and tech culture. He also is a top-rated product reviewer with experience in extensively researched product comparisons, headphones, and gaming devices.

Whenever he isn’t busy writing about tech or gadgets, he can usually be found enjoying a new world in a video game, or tinkering with something on his computer.

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