Species Profile

Prototype Quillwort

Scientific Name: Isoetes prototypus
Taxonomy Group: Vascular Plants
Range: New Brunswick, Nova Scotia
Last COSEWIC Assessment: May 2005
Last COSEWIC Designation: Special Concern
SARA Status: Schedule 1, Special Concern

Go to advanced search

Quick Links: | Description | Distribution and Population | Habitat | Biology | Threats | Protection | National Recovery Program | Documents

Image of Prototype Quillwort


Prototype Quillwort is a perennial aquatic fern ally. It is a very primitive species of ancient origins, and it is considered a “living fossil” by some researchers. It consists of a clump of rigid, brittle quill-like leaves that arise from a corm that is typically rooted to the bottom of a lake. The plants are completely submerged; when viewed from above, the largest plants have an oval-shaped crown 8.5 by 20 cm. The long, tapered leaves are mainly dark green, except at the base, which is reddish brown or chestnut coloured. Spores—small reproductive cells which germinate to form new plants—are borne in the spoon-shaped base of the leaves. The spores mature in summer. Plants are commonly dislodged from the lake bottom where they are rooted and float to the surface, often accumulating in shoreline wrack.


Distribution and Population

The species occurs in only 13 lakes in northeastern North America: 12 in Canada (9 in Nova Scotia and 3 in New Brunswick) and one in Maine in the United States. It is the rarest quillwort species in North America. Prototype Quillwort was recognized as a new species in 1988, following its discovery in a single lake in New Brunswick. Knowledge of its distribution was expanded to three sites in Nova Scotia through examination of herbarium specimens between 1988 and 1993. As a result of fieldwork carried out between 1989 and 1998, two other locations were discovered in Nova Scotia. Another four locations were discovered in Nova Scotia in 2003 and two new sites were identified in New Brunswick in 2004. In 2003 and 2004, the species was observed in situ in all previously known sites, and populations seemed to be abundant at half of the sites. According to these most recent data, the Canadian population totals about 250 000 individuals. This is a very conservative estimate, however, because the species forms dense mats with up to 392 plants per square metre. The total surface area of lakes in which the species occurs is nevertheless quite small. Because none of the known sites of the species has been monitored for changes in population size, it is impossible to assess long-term trends.



Prototype Quillwort often forms dense mats in generally cold, nutrient-poor, spring-fed lakes. The water in these lakes is usually clear, but occasionally can be stained the colour of tea by tannins from the bark of certain decomposing trees. Prototype Quillwort typically occurs at a depth of 1.5 to 2.5 m, where it is rooted in soft, oozy sediment into which a swimmer’s foot could easily sink 5 to 30 cm. The sediment is generally overlying a sandy, gravelly, or rocky bottom. Prototype Quillwort typically grows with other aquatic plants, particularly seven-angled pipewort and lake quillwort. Part of the difficulty of locating Prototype Quillwort lies in its preference for deep water. In many lakes, visibility beneath the surface of the water rarely exceeds 2 m.



Little information is available on the biology of this species. It is assumed, however, that its life cycle is similar to that of other quillworts. The familiar Isoetes plants with the typical “quillwort” morphology are the individuals that produce spores (sporophytes). Quillworts produce two types of spores—large female spores called megaspores and small male spores called microspores. The spores germinate to form plantlets called gametophytes. The megaspores give rise to female gametophytes and the microspores give rise to male gametophytes. The male gametophytes will produce spermatozoids and the female gametophytes will produce eggs. Once the eggs within a female gametophyte are fertilized by the spermatozoids of the male gametophytes, a new sporophyte develops, which in turn will produce spores. In Prototype Quillwort, the spores mature in late summer.



Although no specific threats were noted in the lakes in which Prototype Quillwort occurs, habitat alteration or the direct disturbance of populations could be a threat. Plants could be damaged or uprooted by swimmers, boats, fishing lines, anchors, raking of swimming areas, installation of water intake pipes, or the activities of wildlife. Dislodged plants in the vicinity of underwater moose tracks have been observed, and plants have been dislodged by swimming with flippers. Habitat modifications that pose a threat to this species include cottage construction and shoreline development. Roadways and/or causeways border or encroach on the shoreline at three of the lakes, and cottage development and associated shoreline deforestation are at least locally extensive at four of the lakes. The impacts of this development are unknown, but such habitat modifications could have a negative impact on the species. Habitat alterations due to changes in water levels caused by damming or draining and competition by invasive and/or exotic aquatic plant species can also be assumed to have an adverse effect on this species. As a species that prefers cold, nutrient-poor, spring-fed lakes, it is particularly sensitive to water pollution, changes in pH, and eutrophication, i.e., nutrient enrichment of lakes causing ecological imbalances, such as excessive growth of aquatic plants and oxygen depletion.



Federal Protection

More information about SARA, including how it protects individual species, is available in the Species at Risk Act: A Guide.

In New Brunswick, Prototype Quillwort and its habitat are protected under the provincial Endangered Species Act. In Nova Scotia, the species is not afforded protection under provincial legislation. However, all known sites of the species are located on federal lands and are therefore protected under the Species at Risk Act (SARA). In addition, one of the lakes in which the species occurs is a source of public drinking water and is therefore subject to restrictions to safeguard water quality.

Provincial and Territorial Protection

To know if this species is protected by provincial or territorial laws, consult the provinces' and territories' websites.



PLEASE NOTE: Not all COSEWIC reports are currently available on the SARA Public Registry. Most of the reports not yet available are status reports for species assessed by COSEWIC prior to May 2002. Other COSEWIC reports not yet available may include those species assessed as Extinct, Data Deficient or Not at Risk. In the meantime, they are available on request from the COSEWIC Secretariat.

8 record(s) found.

COSEWIC Status Reports

  • COSEWIC assessment and status report on the prototype quillwort Isoetes prototypus in Canada (2005)

    Prototype quillwort (Isoetes prototypus), a perennial aquatic fern ally, consists of a clump of straight, brittle quill-like leaves that arise from a bilobed (rarely trilobed) corm. The leaves are swollen at the base where the reproductive spores (megaspores and microspores) are formed. Plants are commonly dislodged from the substrate where they are rooted and float to the surface, often accumulating in shoreline wrack. Identification is principally by the size of the reproductive spores and their surface ornamentation and by chromosome number.

COSEWIC Assessments

Response Statements

  • Response Statements - Prototype Quillwort (2005)

    A regional endemic with almost all of its global population in Canada. The species is an aquatic perennial with very specific habitat requirements limiting its occurrence in Canada to about 12 small, unconnected lakes in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The species is found in nutrient-poor, cold, spring-fed lakes. Although several sites have been shown to contain large numbers of plants, one half of the documented sites contain small populations. A wide range of potential limiting factors could impact the species, including changes in water quality, boating and shoreline development.

Management Plans

  • Management Plan for the Prototype Quillwort (Isoetes prototypus) in Canada (2012)

    The Species at Risk Act (SARA, Section 65) requires the competent minister to prepare management plans for species listed as special concern. The Prototype Quillwort was listed as special concern under SARA in August 2006. Environment Canada led the development of the management plan. This management plan was prepared in cooperation with the Provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, as per section 66 (1) of SARA.


COSEWIC Annual Reports

  • COSEWIC Annual Report - 2005 (2005)

    2005 Annual Report to the Canadian Endangered Species Conservation Council (CESCC) from the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.

Consultation Documents

  • Consultation on Amending the List of Species Under the Species At Risk Act: November 2005 (2005)

    The Government of Canada proclaimed the Species at Risk Act (SARA) on June 5, 2003 as part of its strategy for the protection of wildlife species at risk. Attached to the Act is Schedule 1, the list of the species that receive protection under SARA, hereinafter referred to as the 'SARA list'. Canadians are invited to comment on whether all or some of the species included in this document should be added to the SARA list.