In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Fern and Lycophyte Ecology

  • Introduction
  • General Reference Books
  • Journals and Fern Societies
  • Other Basic Sources
  • Worldwide Diversity and Biogeography
  • Demography
  • Phenology
  • Physiological Ecology
  • Nutrient Ecology and Edaphic Specialization
  • Disturbance and Succession
  • Fern Interactions with Fungi and Animals

Ecology Fern and Lycophyte Ecology
Klaus Mehltreter, Joanne M. Sharpe
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0118


Fern ecology is a relatively new branch of research. Fern research and fern societies were focused for more than a century on classic systematics, taxonomy, morphology, and floristics, as well as horticulture (e.g., the Victorian fern craze”), providing the basic foundation for subsequent biological and ecological studies. Early demographic work with horticultural and economically important ferns challenged researchers to better understand the ecological life history of ferns. During the last five decades, ferns have been considered an important experimental group for developmental biology, plant physiology (e.g., antheridiogens, phytochrome), and evolution. Ferns have acquired a mystique over time largely because of their alternation of two independent generations, their own specific terminology that differs from flowering plants, their continuously changing classification systems, their supposedly old evolutionary origins, and their ecological simplicity. However, results of modern molecular research have significantly amended our knowledge of the phylogenetics of “pteridophytes,” an artificial group that included ferns and lycophytes together, and clarified the distinct evolutionary position of ferns (now often called monilophytes) and lycophytes in the tree of life. These studies have also provided evidence that ferns comprise phylogenetic lineages of different ages and that most extant ferns have evolved and diversified in parallel with the angiosperms. In the last twenty years or so, general ecologists who had been wary of integrating ferns into ecosystem studies, along with a new generation of fern researchers, have begun to integrate ferns into more general ecological and comparative investigations. Major areas of interest have included fern and lycophyte biogeography, their functional and structural importance in ecosystems and habitats, their physiological ecology, their role in disturbance and succession, and their interactions with fungi and animals. Applied fern ecologists are dedicated to the management of threatened and invasive species, and to research on the economic benefits of ferns and lycophytes.

General Reference Books

The general biology of ferns is usually covered very briefly in botany textbooks where phylogenetic lineages and their unusual life cycle are described, but even less attention is paid to their ecology. Sporne 1975 completely describes the morphology of ferns and lycophytes, and Tryon and Tryon 1982 is the first well-illustrated complete systematic overview of ferns, including comments about their ecology. Kramer, et al. 1995, a general textbook on ferns, is published in German, and Ranker and Haufler 2008 provides general coverage of the biology and evolution of ferns and lycophytes. Prior to the publication of Mehltreter, et al. 2010, the first textbook dealing specifically with fern ecology, ecological information on ferns was restricted to one small book section, as in Chandra and Srivastava 2003, or a few chapters, as in Dyer 1979 or Dyer and Page 1985 (cited under Other Basic Sources). Although these volumes documented many important preliminary field studies of ferns, rarely was fern research made specifically accessible to a more general audience of ecologists. Fernández, et al. 2011 provides the most recent resource for information on applied fern research, with a strong focus on experimental biology in the laboratory.

  • Chandra, Subash, and Mrittunjai Srivastava, eds. 2003. Pteridology in the new millennium. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-94-017-2811-9

    This volume, published in honor of Professor B. K. Nayar, National Botanical Research Institute, Lucknow, India, is a collection of two introductory chapters and thirty-three research papers from international contributors. Nine chapters focus on ecological and floristic studies, covering subjects such as demography, ecomorphology, fern-animal interactions, and soil spore banks.

  • Dyer, Adrian F., ed. 1979. The experimental biology of ferns. London: Academic Press.

    Several of the sixteen chapters in this multi-authored textbook are of special interest to ecologists. Questions raised in sections about fern diversity, life cycles, cytogenetics, genetics and reproductive biology, experimental aspects of fern ecology, and bracken control are still basic to hypotheses being addressed today.

  • Fernández, Helena, Ashwani Kumar, and Maria A. Revilla, eds. 2011. Working with ferns: Issues and applications. New York: Springer.

    In a valuable textbook for advanced students and researchers, contributors from around the world focus mainly on developmental biology, physiology, and fern propagation in the laboratory. The sections on therapeutic and medicinal applications and aerobiology of spores are essential reading for ecologists.

  • Kramer, Karl U., Johann J. Schneller, and Eckhard Wollenweber. 1995. Farne und Farnverwandte. Stuttgart: Georg Thieme Verlag.

    An easy German textbook for students provides excellent background information, summarized in eight short chapters about morphological, systematic, and chemotaxonomic aspects of ferns. Chapters 4 and 5 focus on biogeography and ecology. It contains thirty-one plates with drawings, diagrams, and black and white pictures.

  • Mehltreter, Klaus, Lawrence R. Walker, and Joanne M. Sharpe, eds. 2010. Fern ecology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511844898

    This textbook is the first devoted specifically to fern ecology. Ten chapters cover the ecological importance of ferns, biogeography, population dynamics, nutrient ecology, adaptations to xeric environments, succession, fern-animal interactions, problem ferns, conservation, and future research directions. It also includes an updated classification system, index to genera, and glossary.

  • Ranker, Tom A., and Christopher H. Haufler, eds. 2008. Biology and evolution of ferns and lycophytes. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511541827

    The editors organize the sixteen contributed chapters of this textbook for advanced students and researchers under four major topics: development and morphogenesis, genetics and reproduction, ecology, and systematics and evolutionary biology. The ecological chapters deal with phenology and habitat specificity, gametophyte ecology, conservation biology, and ex-situ conservation.

  • Sporne, Kenneth R. 1975. The morphology of the pteridophytes. London: Hutchinson.

    This is the only book that focuses specifically on the morphology of ferns and lycophytes, containing information that is fundamental to any ecological study of ferns. Although the taxonomic classification is outdated, it remains a valuable resource because it includes all fossil groups, which are rarely addressed in other textbooks.

  • Tryon, Rolla M., and Alice F. Tryon. 1982. Ferns and allied plants with special reference to tropical America. New York: Springer.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4613-8162-4

    Although this systematic survey is focused on tropical America, it is one of the first to integrate ecosystem information. It includes a comprehensive treatment of each family and genus, including numerous black and white photos and illustrations of morphological details, plants in their habitats, spore characteristics, and distribution maps.

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