|While we are
probably all aware that there is a great variety of wild flowering plants around us
(approximately 1,500 species in Britain), you may be surprised to learn that there are
almost as many Bryophytes! There are well over 1,100 different species of mosses and
liverworts in Britain, with nearly 900 of these being mosses. Even within a relatively
small area such as the Woodland Education Centre, over 100 species of mosses and
liverworts have been recorded. There will be any number of different species in your backyard too, yet
because they tend to be more on toe level than eye level, they are easily overlooked. This
is a shame, because, as with many things in the natural world, once you begin to look a
bit more closely, truly fascinating ways of life emerge.
One other unfortunate consequence of
their cryptic nature is that most mosses can only be identified by tongue-twisting Latin
names. Because they are less well observed and noticed, few have widely accepted common
names,. Their low growth form and usually small size also means that the importance of
mosses in ecological terms is often overlooked.
||I was astonished to find that mosses were among the earliest colonizers of
bare ground recently cleared of rhododendron. I discovered this some years ago, while
surveying the newly de-infested birch woodland in the Woodland Project area at the Centre.
had always assumed that mosses were slow-growing and had not considered them to be pioneer
species. Yet in this woodland situation, a variety of mosses became well-established on
the cleared woodland floor, long before the flowering plants.
developing mossy carpets also provided important new microhabitats for an extraordinary
variety of invertebrate life. This ranged from fly larvae, slugs and snails, to mites,
pseudoscorpions and spiders.In wet conditions, the moss acts like a sponge, providing
semi-aquatic conditions for a whole variety of other minute creatures, as well as a
wonderfully damp nursery for germinating tree seedlings and other flowering plants.
Mosses can also be
extremely useful as habitat indicators. For instance - forget the pH testing kit for your
garden soil - finding a particular species of moss could help you decide whether you
should be growing azaleas or anemones! Many mosses have very distinct preferences for
either acid or alkaline soils. For example, like anemones, mosses such as Tortella tortuosa and Neckera crispa prefer soils with a high lime content and pH. Others such as Campylopus paradoxus favour acidic soils, while Sphagnum moss can thrive in bogs with a soil pH as low as 3.5.
However, look carefully! You might
actually have very acid soil, yet still find a lime-loving moss species happily growing.
This can happen where small chunks of cement, masonry or similar stone are present. The
small size of most mosses means that these lime islands can be independently
colonized by lime-loving species, while the surrounding acid soil supports its own
complement of acid-loving species.
In practice, a certain degree of
knowledge and familiarity with mosses is needed for them to be useful as habitat
indicators. Identifying individual species can be a very specialist task. Some mosses look
superficially very similar, yet prove to be completely different when looked at using a
hand lens or a microscope. Other closely related species can sometimes only be separated
on microscopic cellular differences. The same moss can also have a quite different general
appearance, depending on its growth stage or how dry it is.
Dont be put off though!
There are many commonly occurring mosses which are distinctive enough to be readily
identified by anyone with a general interest and a hand lens. Their ecology is fascinating
and on close examination, many mosses are extraordinarily beautiful. Running your fingers
over compact shining carpets of moss can also be a wonderfully tactile experience. The really challenging identifications
can be ignored until later.
*Thanks to Dr Sean Edwards,
Keeper of Botany at the Manchester Museum, for kindly supplying some identifications and
common names of the mosses pictured above.
The names of the
mosses illustrated are included in the image titles. (These titles become visible when you
hold your mouse pointer over the image.)