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Dr Alan Channing

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Geothermally influenced wetlands around sinter depositing springs of Yellowstone

The most widespread environment of plant preservation in Yellowstone, geothermally influenced wetlands where silica super-saturated waters flow into areas of plant growth. Typical plants growing here are more commonly found in caostal marshes, or when found inland occur around saline lakes or seeps.

The most common plant at present colonising geothermal wetlands is the sedge Eleocharis rostellata (common name beaked spikerush). This example is growing on the sinter apron surface at Big Blue Hot Spring, Elk Park, near Norris Geyser basin. Water flowing past the plant has temperatures approaching the upper limit for higher plants (40-45 C), has a pH approaching 9 and contains enough disolved salt to be considered brackish. In addition to these stresses the water also contains disolved elements such as arsenic, mercury and antimony at potentially phytotoxic concentrations. As can be seen the plant is trying to colonise more of the apron surface by producing stolons (runners) that produce clones when they find a suitable surface. Vegetative rather than sexual reproduction appears to be a repeating theme throughout the fossil record of hot spring plants.

Triglochin maritimum, seaside arrowgrass is the other common plant in geothermally influenced wetlands in Yellowstone. The plant is often found growing in slightly dryer settings than Eleocharis, but may also occur in relatively deep pools of sluggish to standing hot spring water.

Small geothermal wetland developed at the margin of the sinter apron of Porkchop Geyser at Norris. Triglochin occurs in the foreground and a dense carpet of Eleocharis covers the damp sediment surface beyond. The pool is fringed by salinity and alkalinity tolerant grasses.