The evolution of fern diversity

Sori (clusters of structures producing and containing spores) on the fern Polystichum munitum

Principal Investigator

Dr Harald Schneider

Project summary

  • Focus: Tracking the evolution of fern diversity through space and time

We are tracking the evolution of fern diversity through space and time.

This project aims to explore the origin of fern diversity by integrating:

  • lineage history - phylogeny, divergence time estimates, fossil record
  • geographic distribution
  • morphological and/or physiological variation
  • ecological differentiation

Our research focuses on:

  • the Palaeozoic origin of ferns
  • the Cretaceous revolution(s)
  • the Cainozoic diversification - particularly the correlation of diversification events with fluctuations of the global climate since the Eocene

Current projects include:

Taxonomy and classification (of selected fern families and genera)

Project staff: Dr H Schneider, Dr J Yesilyurt

Asplenium aethiopicum fern

The fern Asplenium aethiopicum


The genus Asplenium is arguably the most-species rich genus among ferns, with more than 700 species.

The project aims to obtain a global phylogeny of the genus and its relatives, which will be used as the framework for taxonomic studies on a generally poorly understood lineage.


This family is the most-species rich among ferns, with more than 1,000 species, and shows a pantropical distribution.

The majority of these ferns are epiphytes but other life habits evolved independently in this lineage.

Current research is focused on genus classification, especially of genera related toLepisorusMicrosorum and Polypodium.

Other families

Several other lineages are currently studied including: 

  • Cyatheaceae (Alsophila)
  • Pteridaceae (Doryopteris)

Ferns and diversity hotspots

Forest in Madagascar

Forest in Madagascar

These projects target the process of assembling and conserving species diversity of ferns in biodiversity hotspots and other centres of biodiversity, such as Madagascar, southwest China, the eastern Himalaya and the Malay Archipelago.

The Chinese fern diversity is studied in collaboration with Professor Xian-Chun Zhang at the Chinese Academy of Science, Beijing.

Fern diversity on oceanic islands: the Mascarenes and Macaronesia

Project staff: Dr F Rumsey (Macaronesia), Dr H Schneider

Ophioglossum azoricum

Ophioglossum azoricum

Oceanic islands are often valued as Darwinian laboratories. In our studies we focus on two main islands of the Mascarene Islands - Mauritius and Réunion - as an example of fern diversification on geologically-young tropical oceanic islands.

The results of this project will be compared with the patterns and processes discovered in independent studies on the evolution of Macaronesian ferns.

This project is supported by the Marie-Curie Fellowship granted to Sabine Hennequin.

Museum staff

Biodiversity research

We are creating molecular and digital tools to explore undiscovered biodiversity

Plants research

Studying a wide variety of plants, including bryophytes, ferns and flowering plants

Fern collections

The Museum houses around 280,000 specimens of ferns and other seed-free vascular plants in the world