Sphagnum Moss: 1 Essential Keystone Species

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Sphagnum Moss

Sphagnum Moss

The many species of sphagnum moss belong to an ancient group of plants called the Bryophytes, a group which both lacks tubes to conduct water and reproduces by releasing simple cells called spores rather than multicellular seeds like most other plants.

Sphagnum mosses have some unique abilities making them a critical species in the lives of many shallow ponds/bogs. Some species can both float on the surface of the water and manufacture acids in their cells.

These acids acidify the water making life difficult for bacteria and other decomposers. Layers of dead moss are pushed under the floating layer and are slow to decompose both due to phenolic chemicals within the cell walls and the acidity of the water.

This layer of dead moss eventually reaches the bottom of the pond. Past many hundreds or even thousands of years, a delicate spongy hummock is produced where there used to be water.

Other plants such as Labrador Tea can then occupy the new ground leading to a succession of plant species, including trees such as spruce and pine.

The dead moss layers in a bog are called peat moss. Peat moss has many uses, including gardening, insulation, a medium for growing edible mushrooms, and antibiotic filling for wound dressings. Unfortunately, it is a non-renewable resource when used in this way.

Research efforts are underway to culture sphagnum moss so industrial operations can grow back the moss they remove.

Please be gentle as you enjoy the bog. It is a living work in progress.


BRYOPHYTES can be found on most surfaces in urban, rural, mountainous, and the coast. Although most people have often passed by or have been local to them, many would not necessarily be aware that they are Bryophytes.

There are over 1,000 species of Bryophytes in the UK, and many are common, although there are some rare and endangered species.

A quick check of a patio, wall, lawn, tree, roof, and rockery will almost certainly give sight of a Bryophyte. They are non-vascular plants generically known as mosses.

In contrast to vascular plants and trees, which have a circulatory system with the roots absorbing water circulated the plant body, Bryophytes do not have this ability. Still, they have conductive tissues for the ingestion of water and nutrients.

Another difference to vascular plants is that they do not produce flowers and seeds and, as such, no pollen or nectar.

Instead, they produce large quantities of spores. Although they have a reliance on moisture to survive and reproduce, they do have the ability to survive prolonged dry or drought periods. They can become almost completely desiccated and shriveled.

Upon being exposed to water again, they can reabsorb moisture and completely recover.
Bryophytes are divided into three divisions; Mosses (Bryophyta), Liverworts (Marchantiophyta), and Hornworts (Anthocerotophyta).

Sphagnum Moss Species

There exist around 760 species of moss, 300 species of liverwort, and 4 species to be found in the UK.

They have important roles and are sensitive to both air and water quality, and are key points of the “health” of our environment and ecosystems.

Bog mosses (Sphagnum) play a crucial role in our endangered peatland due to their ability to hold onto water, as well as providing an important habitat for other plants and animals.

Sphagnum mosses are described as a “keystone species” of peatlands and are critical to the restoration of bogs or fens.

A keystone species has an extremely high impact on a specific ecosystem about its population and is critical to the overall structure and function. In turn, they impact other types of plants and animals within the ecosystem.

In the lack of a keystone species, many ecosystems would fail.

There are 34 species of similar-looking sphagnum mosses in the UK and are usually grouped as “Sphagnum” for easy description.

They are exceedingly small and grow closer together, forming spongy carpets, and hummocks are made when the mosses grow to make large mounds up to a meter high.

Sphagnums range in color from red and pink to orange and green and form the amazingly beautiful multi-colored, ‘living carpets’ in wet places like peat bogs, marshland, heath, and moorland.

They also hold an important role in the creation and continuation of peat bogs. They hold water long after the surrounding soil has dried out, providing essential nutrients.

This helps prevent the decay of dead plant material and this organic matter that gets compressed over hundreds of years to form peat – locking away carbon that would otherwise add to the impacts of climate change.

For more information on how the Wildlife Trusts are protecting peatlands go to