Mosses and lichens: Tiny worlds at our feet

Mosses and lichens often get short shrift when we talk about the living world. Mosses apparently cover a global area the size of China, and are more effective at sequestering carbon than bare soil.

Lichens in particular are not traditional plants – they’re a symbiotic relationship between a fungus and an alga. The fungus provides a protective home for the alga, while the alga produces food for the fungus from sunshine, water, and air.

Mosses are small plants and thus easy to dismiss – except in my yard where we have a bedrock hump that is teeming with moss and lichen life. In the summer they get crunchy and harder to identify, but now that the rains have come they’ve softened up and are showing their true colours.

I took a few macro photos of each type of moss and lichen and tried to identify them–if you spot an incorrectly identified one, let me know and I’ll update the post!

This bushy moss seems to be Rhytidiadelphus triquetrus. It’s one of the main mosses on my bedrock outcrop.

These moss seed stems belong to the common haircup moss, Polytrichum commune.

This foliar lichen is like leaves on the rock, still curled up a bit from the drought. I expect them to flatten out a bit once it gets wetter. It’s called Peltigera brittanica.

These green mosses are a star moss, Tortula ruralis. I recently read a post-apocalyptic novel in which one of the characters was named Tortula, and she had moss growing on her forehead. Strange, I know.

It’s hard to tell from this photo but these lichens have a small cup at the end of their stem. I think some had broken off from being stepped on. This kind of lichen is called Cladonia sulphurina.

It’s easier to see the cup lichen in this picture, tucked amongst the star moss.

This is a white branching lichen which, when I tried to look it up, kept coming up with stick insects that look exactly like this lichen. Allie Weill noted that it’s probably a Stereocaulon spp. It could be a stick insect though I didn’t see it move!

This one I had a hard time identifying and couldn’t get a lead on it. So I’m leaving it open to all you bryologists out there – what kind of moss is this?

I’ve never paid too much attention to bryophytes and lichens, and I now realize there’s a rich world covering the bedrock outcrop in my yard. Taking the time to focus on them and photograph them was a meditative exercise, exploring the variety of mosses and lichens whereas before I’d thought there was just one or two. I can imagine the fun bryologists and lichenologists have, crouching down with a hand lens to look closely at mosses and lichens and see the small worlds they create.

What’s fascinating is that a Douglas fir and several wild roses have managed to survive in the crevices of the rock, likely feeding on the small pockets of soil created by the moss and lichen. They’ve been there through many droughts and seem to be thriving, even though they don’t grow much, so we’ll leave them be.

I hesitate to walk on the rock now as I don’t want to disturb the ecosystem, though something (birds, raccoons?) has been pulling the moss off, presumably to get at insects living underneath it. It seems like such a destructive activity, but I guess you can’t stop nature.

Updated 12 Oct: fixed caption on first image to note it is a moss, not a lichen. Adjusted text to be clear that mosses are plants and lichens are not. Also adjusted text to note that bryologists study mosses, not lichens. Lichenologists study lichens. Changed the species name of the second last lichen, from Cladonia arbuscula to a species of Stereocaulon.

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2 thoughts on “Mosses and lichens: Tiny worlds at our feet”

  1. Nice photos! Always fun to see lichens and bryophyte things–I came across your link in my Twitter feed.

    The last lichen that you’ve called Cladonia arbuscula is probably actually a species of Stereocaulon, maybe Stereocaulon alpinum. The first photo is not a lichen but I think that was a typo since you ID’d it to be a moss species.

    Some other lichen facts that you might appreciate:
    -In Cladonias, the “stems” are called podetia, and there are often fruiting bodies on the ends, where the cups are, that produce fungal spores. But the podetia are only part of the lichen–the podetia grow out of a primary thallus that you may be able to see if you look close amid the moss.
    -Lichenologists would generally not consider lichens to be plants in almost any sense of the word, and while they have some things in common with bryophytes and they are sometimes studied together, lichens are not bryophytes and are usually categorized within fungi. The majority of the body is fungal, and they are sometimes called lichenized fungi (really, as time goes on we understand them more and more to be mini-ecosystems with a whole lot going on–but I still mostly consider them to be very special fungi, or a type of fungal lifestyle). You could maybe argue that the presence of the alga makes them a kind of plant, but even then, about 10% of lichens don’t have any alga, just cyanobacteria (and some have both, including, I think, your Peltigera there).

    Thanks for the lichen and moss content!

    Reply
    • Hi Allie – thanks for your lengthy comment! Always good to get someone more versed in these species to help identify them. I’ve made a few changes to the post based on your comments – thanks again!

      Reply

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