It’s fascinating to study rare species, a job that often involves rewarding detective work. Recently, I’ve been investigating a rare species of moss for COSEWIC (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada).

It’s the mandate of rare species authorities such as COSEWIC to identify species that may be at risk. They contract experts to gather the information needed for them to decide if, and to what degree, those species risk extinction. As the museum’s Botany Curator, I meet these sleuths when they check our collections for information on their target species. And as a status report author for COSEWIC, I’m also often on the trail of target species of my own.

Jennifer Doubt looks at a plant stored flat on a sheet.
Jennifer Doubt examines a plant specimen in the museum’s National Herbarium. Image: Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature.

In 2013, I bid, with two co-authors, to write a Status Report on Porter’s Twisted Moss (Tortula porteri). In Canada, Porter’s Twisted Moss grows only in Ontario, only on limestone (and its cousin, dolostone), and only in the province’s most vineyard-rich, warm-wintered regions.

Close-up of a clump of Porter’s Twisted Moss on rock.
The rare quarry: close-up of Porter’s Twisted Moss. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

The National Herbarium’s founding curator, John Macoun, picked up the first known Canadian collection of Porter’s Twisted Moss on Pelee Island (almost the southern tip of Ontario) in 1882. Between 1882 and 2013, it was also collected on nearby Middle Island, and on the Niagara Peninsula. The proof comes from voucher specimens in the National Herbarium and other North American collections in the herbarium network.

A close-up of a moss specimen and a collection label from 1882.
John Macoun collected this specimen of Porter’s Twisted Moss (CANM 197807) on Pelee Island. A specimen label from one of these collections (CANM 197808) reveals his handwriting. His mosses are housed in the museum’s National Herbarium. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

These specimens helped me and my collaborators to piece together a picture of where, and how abundantly, Porter’s Twisted Moss may have grown over the past 100 years or so. The specimens also helped us to plan a fruitful (and fun) 2014 field search for current information.

With the help of other botanists (the more eyes on the ground and the more local experience the better!), we re-visited places where no moss botanists (a.k.a. bryologists) had collected in 50 years or more. We recorded how much Porter’s Twisted Moss we found (or not), what conditions defined its habitat, and what threats were present.

Six people, including Jennifer Doubt, stand along a fence.
It takes a team! In May 2014, Doubt and her fellow botanists pause before searching for Porter’s Twisted Moss along the Niagara River. (l-r): Albert Garofalo, Corey Burant, Jennifer Doubt, Linda Ley, Allan Aubin, Leanne Wallis. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

With a new understanding of its associations and preferences, we pinpointed other areas that seemed likely homes for Porter’s Twisted Moss, and visited them…until it was time to return to the Museum.

A woman in a forest crouches down to closely examine a rocky outcrop.
Linda Ley, a co-author of the status report on Porter’s Twisted Moss, examines an outcrop for signs of the rare plant during a search in the Niagara region. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

It’s back in the lab and the office that the adventure of fieldwork becomes useful to others. We examined the collected specimens, and compiled our fieldwork results and background research on Porter’s Twisted Moss for a COSEWIC Status Report. In spring 2015, a long review period began. All COSEWIC members had a chance to make comments. Now, the report is on the review home stretch, with the third of three rounds underway.

Meanwhile, my colleagues and I on the Mosses and Lichens Species Specialist Subcommittee, along with experts who know the species’ habitats and associated land uses, collaborated in a detailed assessment of threats. Information in the report was scrutinized against the criteria that COSEWIC will eventually use to develop its recommendations, to identify information that needed to be clarified or removed. Finally, we drafted a preliminary recommendation on how the criteria might be applied in the specific case of this little moss.

A rocky outcrop covered in mosses.
This outcrop on the Niagara Peninsula is home to numerous species of mosses, including Porter’s Twisted Moss (in middle of photo). Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Sometime soon—probably in April—the reviewed (and re-re-reviewed!) Status Report on Porter’s Twisted Moss will appear on the agenda alongside reports about fish, terrestrial mammals, reptiles and more…all at the “big table” of a COSEWIC Species Assessment Meeting. Thoughtful discussion and a vote will result in a status recommendation. The latest recommendations are always made public in a press release.

Did you know that COSEWIC’s assessment and subcommittee meetings are open to all?  In recent years, the autumn meeting has been in Ottawa, and the spring meeting has been held elsewhere in Canada. The dates and locations of upcoming COSEWIC meetings are posted on their website.

Perhaps you’ll get to be a fly on the wall when Porter’s Twisted Moss comes up! The committee asks only that everyone present agree to observe the confidentiality of the discussions, in support of the open discussion required to achieve the best, impartial results.