Bryophytes

Welcome to the bryophytes section of ABMI's Biodiversity Browser. Scroll down the page to learn more about bryophytes and why they are important to monitor. Or click the button below to find out more about individual bryophyte species in Alberta.

Photo Credit: K.Williams

Introduction

Mosses and liverworts (bryophytes) are primitive plants characterized by their small size, lack of roots and stems, and absence of flowers or seeds. They play a vital role in many ecosystems, contributing to nutrient cycling, decomposition and productivity. Alberta is home to a rich and diverse bryophyte flora with over 600 species.

Facts About Bryophytes

image Photo Credit: K. Williams

Mosses have sporophytes instead of flowers. Spores can be carried long distances by the wind, or in some species groups, transported to nearby habitats by insects

  • Bryophytes are highly successful and widely distributed. They grow on a variety of surfaces, including soil and decaying logs, and in mountain streams. Because they have small fine rhizoids instead of roots, they are also one of the few plants that can grow on inhospitable surfaces like rock or bark where other plants can’t get a grip. 
  • Without roots or stems, bryophytes soak up water and nutrients directly though the leaf surface. They are poikilohydric, meaning these plants dry out and rehydrate as the surrounding environment does.
  • Mosses and liverworts are often one of the first plants to establish after fire or other disturbances. They prevent erosion, retain moisture and improve the quality of the soil, paving the way for other plants to establish and grow.
  • Bryophytes are ancient plants and were pivotal in the transition to life on land nearly 450 million years ago, making them pioneers of the plant world. Fossil mosses can be used to reconstruct past environmental conditions like climate, or to study human activity markers like air pollution[1]
     
     
Photo Credit: R. Caners

Bryophytes are the Foundation Species for Peatlands

Peatlands are a type of wetland that have accumulated at least 40 cm of peat—a type of organic soil composed of decomposing vegetation. Carpets of sphagnum mosses or brown mosses dominate the ground cover and contribute significantly to the accumulation of peat. Peatlands— which cover approximately 19% of Alberta’s boreal forest— are vital for carbon storage and regional hydrology.

Why Monitor Bryophytes

 

  • Bryophytes are highly sensitive to changes in their environment. Consequently, they are reliable indicators of small-scale microhabitat conditions including soil type, pH and nutrient availability, and larger-scale indicators of ecosystem health such as forest floor moisture[2].
  • Due to their sensitivity to temperature and moisture changes, bryophytes are ideal for investigating early warning climate change impacts. As the climate warms, bryophyte richness and cover are expected to decline, particularly in boreal and alpine habitats[3].
  • Bryophytes are sensitive and effective indicators of a wide range of contaminants such as heavy metals like cadmium and arsenic. They are used locally and worldwide as indicators of environmental pollution[4].
  • Many bryophyte species can be used as indicators of ecosystem health and functioning following human disturbances such as oil and gas exploration, and forest harvesting.

 

image Photo Credit: K.Williams

Hairy Threadwort (Blepharostoma trichophyllum) is a microscopic liverwort that only grows on well-decayed logs. It declines rapidly with changes to growing conditions, especially humidity.

Research Spotlight

Big Red Stem Moss (Pleurozium schreberi) is widespread and often locally abundant, making it an ideal species for a regional biomonitoring program

Photo Credit: Brittney Miller
Retrospective Evaluation of Contaminants in Cryptogams in the Athabasca Oil Sands Region Partnership

Lichens and mosses collected by ABMI are not only a record of biodiversity at a given time and place, but they also record the elements in that environment, absorbed from the moisture and dust deposited on their bodies. In collaboration with Wood Buffalo Environmental Association, we are exploring the use of these biological archives to track changes in air quality and deposition. For more information about this project, visit the project page

Meet ABMI's Resident Bryophyte Experts

Krista Williams, MSc

Lead Scientist, Bryophytes

Krista has been exploring the world of bryophytes since 2007, and with ABMI since 2014. She can usually be found scouring the woods for bryophytes or with eyes glued to a microscope assigning names to these miniature plants. 

Teri Hill

Bryophyte Taxonomist

After completing her BSc at the University of Alberta, Teri joined the ABMI as a Bryophyte Technician in 2015. When not identifying bryophytes, Teri can be found hiking, gardening and playing the harp.

If you have questions about ABMI's bryophyte monitoring program, please get in touch: krista.williams@ualberta.ca

Additional Resources and Publications

How do we monitor bryophytes?

Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute. 2014. Terrestrial field data collection protocols (abridged version) 2014-03-21. Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute, Alberta, Canada. Report available at: https://www.abmi.ca/home/publications/1-50/46.html

Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute. 2010. Laboratory Protocols for Processing Bryophytes (10009), Version 2010-05-31. Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute, Alberta, Canada. Report available at: https://abmi.ca/home/publications/301-350/330 


How do we identify bryophytes?

Flora of North America Editorial Committee, eds. 1993+. Flora of North America North of Mexico. New York and Oxford. vol. 27, 2007; vol 28, 2014. PLUS treatments awaiting publication at (http://www.mobot.org/plantscience/bfna/TREAtments.htm)

Damsholt, K. 2009. Illustrated Flora of Nordic Liverworts and Hornworts. Second Edition.  Nordic Bryological Society, Lund, Sweden.


Recommended resources:

image Photo Credit: K. Williams

A moss-covered log is a biodiversity hotspot hosting communities of invertebrates, fungi and bacteria that are critical in forests for decomposition, nutrient cycling and productivity

Vitt, D.H. and M. Lüth. 2017. A Guide to Mosses and Liverworts of Alberta Peatlands. NAIT Boreal Research Institute.

Laine, J., P. Harju, T. Timonen, A.  Laine, E.S. Tuittila, K. Minkkinen, and H. Vasander. 2011. The Intricate Beauty of Sphagnum Mosses--a Finnish Guide to Identification. University of Helsinki. Department of Forest Sciences Publications.

Malcolm, B. and N. Malclom. 2006. Mosses and Other Bryophytes, an Illustrated Glossary Second Edition. Micro-Optics Press, Nelson, New Zealand.

Alberta Conservation Information Management System. Link to website is here.   

University of Alberta Cryptogamic Herbarium (ALTA). Link to website is here


Presentations:

Bryophytes of Alberta (2021). Webinar available here.

Antifreeze and Sunblock: How Mosses Survive and Alberta Winter (2021). Blog available here

Dung Mosses: Masters of Manipulation (2014). Blog available here.

References

1.

Shotyk, W., et al. 2016. Peat bogs in northern Alberta, Canada reveal decades of declining atmospheric Pb contamination. Geophysical Research Letters 43: 9964-9974.

2.

Mills, S.E. and S.E. MacDonald. 2005. Factors influencing bryophyte assemblage at different scales in the Western Canadian Boreal Forest. The Bryologist 108: 86-100. 
 

3.

Tuba, Z., N.G. Slack,  and  L.R. Stark. 2011. Bryophyte Ecology and Climate Change pp 506. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

 

4.

Zechmeister, H.G. 2003. Trace Metals and other Contaminants in the Environment pp. 329. Elsevier.