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Mosses, liverworts and hornworts are commonly known as bryophytes. They are similar to the first plants that evolved on land over 400 million years ago.
There are over 20,000 species of bryophyte on Earth, with over 1,000 found in the UK. The UK’s bryophytes are of global significance, but they are threatened by human activities.
What are bryophytes?
Bryophytes are small non-vascular plants that have no flowers or seeds. They include mosses, liverworts and hornworts. They reproduce through stalk-like structures (sporophytes) that release spores. The tiny spores are easily carried on the wind to colonise new areas.
Most bryophyte species inhabit damp or humid places, but they are found all over the world – including mountains and deserts. Some mosses can grow in areas with little water because they can dry out without dying and then ‘come back to life’ in just seconds when it rains.
They are not as well known as flowering plants, but leaf-like mosses are as complex. They are mini forests in their own right and offer habitat for other plants, insects, frogs and fungi. Some larvae of micro-moths and lace-bugs feed only on moss. Other insects hunt among moss for prey. The insects from moss also feed bats and birds.
Mosses can grow on trees and rocks. Some like carpet moss, Mnium hornum, can cover large areas of the woodland floor. Electrified cat’s tail moss, Rhytidiadelphus triquetrus, can cope with the more acidic soil of conifer woods. Squirrels use moss to line their dreys and dormice hibernate in nests made beneath moss.
Sphagnum mosses have built our peat bogs. The cold, wet conditions in some areas cause mosses and plants to decompose very slowly and form peat. These areas lock up large amounts of carbon, clean our water and reduce flooding. We are working to restore important peatland in some areas planted with non-native conifers.
Liverworts can be leafy and look similar to mosses, or can be thalloid with a flattened, pancake-like appearance.
The thalloid snakeskin liverwort, Conocephalum conicum, is a relatively large, common UK species. It inhabits wet places like rocks by rivers and on damp banks. The leafy purple spoonwort, Pleurozia purperea, is an attractive red-purple liverwort that can be found in Scotland’s Atlantic woodland.
Hornworts are quite scarce in the UK. They have flattened green bodies with horn-like sporophytes that produce spores.
The Carolina hornwort, Phaeoceros carolinianus, is an endangered species in the UK. The smooth hornwort, Phaeoceros laevis, is more common and can be found on moist soils, such as the banks of streams.
More plants and fungi
Find out more about some of the other plants and fungi in the UK.