New plant species discovered in Rocky |

New plant species discovered in Rocky

The wishbone moonwort is a new plant species that was discovered in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Courtesy Glen Lee, Saskatchewan, Canada

Researchers have discovered a new plant species growing in Rocky Mountain National Park following hundreds of hours of combing remote ecosystems.

On July 22, park officials shared that wishbone moonwort was found in Rocky. The plant only grows about one to three inches tall and spends limited time above ground in the summer.

Moonwort expert and senior author of the paper on wishbone moonwort Steve Popovich said he first noticed the plant in the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests, which prompted him to begin studying whether it was a new species.

“New discoveries of species doesn’t happen very often and what a fascinating plant it turned out to be,” Popovich said.

Popovich and his team focused on remote and high-elevation parts of the Rocky Mountain National Park when they began searching for the plant. Popovich credited Scotty Smith and the late Peter Root for their contributions as well.

Moonworts typically grow in forest openings and meadows, around 8,000 to 12,000 feet in montane and subalpine areas.

Strawberries, pussytoes, goldenrods and smaller conifers often signal moonwort in the area. There are over 20 species of moonwort, with Colorado home to about 14 and Rocky featuring at least five.

“Colorado is a hot spot for moonwort,” Popovich said. “All the moonworts in Grand County are uncommon or rare.”

Dave Steinmann, a member of the research team, said the park was very supportive of the research, allowing them to enter areas of the park normally closed off to people.

“We truly do crawl around on our hands and knees, looking very closely,” Steinmann said. “People would stop us and ask if we lost something because we were moving so slowly and looking at the ground.”

The wishbone moonwort is named for its distinctive two-stalk shape. It had previously been confused with another moonwort species that it shares genetic and visual similarities to, according to Popovich’s paper identifying the plant, published in the “American Fern Journal.”

Moonworts are primitive relative of the fern family, dating back millions of years in the fossil record, meaning the plant has outlived the dinosaurs. Popovich said an unproved theory is that moonworts survived because they are able to live underground without ever coming above the surface.

It’s believed moonworts are able to stay below ground because instead of photosynthesis, the plants get all of their nutrients from underground fungi.

“This plant might help us understand the function and importance of the fungal community to all above ground plants,” Popovich said.

Moonwort has a history in wives tales and alchemy, including stories in Medieval England that the spores could unlock doors or make people invisible.

Steinmann’s favorite story is an early English superstition that riding a horse through a field of moonwort would cause the horses’ shoes to fall off.

The new wishbone moonwort joins the hundreds of flora species in Rocky.

“This is a reminder to all of us that we don’t know everything that is within the boundaries of the park,” park spokesperson Kyle Patterson said in a statement. “The park is a protected area that may contain other new species and many things important to science that have not yet been discovered!”

According to the research paper, they are believed to be widespread from in the central and southern Rocky Mountains from Alberta, Canada to New Mexico. The moonwort has been found at 65 sites across the range.

“People might walk by them all the time and just wouldn’t notice them because they’re so small,” Steinmann said. “They love to grow on ski slopes too.”

Steinmann added that the wishbone moonwort won’t be the last new moonwort species found, with more believed to be living in Colorado.

“There’s another new species still to be named (in Rocky), in addition to the one that was just named,” he said.

For more information on the wishbone moonwort, reach out to Popovich at

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with comments from the researchers and Rocky Mountain National Park.

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