Living moss carpets have a vital impact on biodiversity

Under the roof of what was once to become the residence of the future King of Finland, researchers painstakingly study herbarium specimens of mosses, liverworts and hornworts, also known as bryophytes.

"Mining is especially devastating for bryophytes as their habitat is completely destroyed," Collection Coordinator Sannamaija Laaka-Lindberg, from the Museum of Natural History LUOMUS at the University of Helsinki, explains.

"Studying bryophytes helps us understand how plants have evolved on our planet. Their role in the ecosystem is important. The museum collections help us to show, e.g. climate change or changes in biodiversity. Peat mosses produce peat, which absorbs carbon and they are sensitive to the level of moisture in the atmosphere."  

First plants that turned Earth green

Her colleague Xiaolan He, who works as Curator of Bryophytes at the Herbarium Collections, tells us why mosses, liverworts and hornworts are important.

"They were likely the first plants on dry land and may probably be among the last to survive. Bryophytes tell us about the evolution and how plants have developed. They were among the first green plants to successfully colonize land. It happened about 470 million years ago from their fresh water green algal ancestors. Bryophytes are among the most common vegetation in forests. The green cushion or carpet we see in the forests is very effective in water maintenance."

"Bryophytes show us one of the most successful strategies in plant evolution.  They are hardy and they are able to strive on rocks, high mountains and also in deserts, practically all terrestrial habitats.  The Finnish climate with lots of rain and little evaporation is suitable for bryophytes as they thrive in humid conditions."

"We look up towards the trees and the sky, but we should not forget to look at the smallest plants. Open your eyes and look down towards the ground. It is covered with spectacular carpets of bryophytes around us. Yet so few of us notice them," says Xiaolan He.

" There are over 900 bryophyte species found in Finland, representing half of the European bryophyte diversity. Sadly, many specialized spring bryophytes and species of old-growth forests have become threatened due to degradation of habitats, because of urbanization, forestry practice and other human disturbance.  Currently 20% of the bryophyte diversity have been classified as threatened and 4% as regionally extinct in Finland," Xiaolan He concludes.

Tread softly in the fairy tale forest! Soft cushions of mosses in a Finnish forest look almost magical (Polytrichum sp) and lichen (Cladonia sp). Photo: Helena Hiltunen

Bryology is a branch of botany concerned with the scientific study of bryophytes (mosses, liverworts, and hornworts).

The study of bryophyte taxonomy and systematics has been going on for more than 150 years at the University of Helsinki, and bryologists S. O. Lindberg, V. F. Brotherus, H. Buch, and R. Tuomikoski were pioneers in bryological research at both national and international standards.

The herbarium specimens, which consist of dried, preserved plant samples, attached on paper sheets or packed in paper packets, labelled with information including scientific names of the plant and its collector(s), locality, ecology and time of collecting. They are arranged systematically and continuously studied and verified by taxonomists worldwide. As herbarium specimens record information of past and current biodiversity and global environmental change, they form the important and unique source of data that can be used in many areas of biology. In fact herbarium specimens are being used as never before to document the impacts of global change on nature.

The bryophyte collection at the University of Helsinki consist of ca. 700 000 specimens of mosses, liverworts, and hornworts. Due to richness in type specimens of bryophytes, it is one of the most significant collections in the world. Some of the specimens are unique. The collections are still actively used by international researchers.

Sextus Otto Lindberg (1835 –1889) was a Swedish physician and botanist. He was selected as the Professor of Botany of the University of Helsinki in 1865 and brought the study of bryophytes to Finland. Lindberg believed in that you can increase knowledge in nature history by making critical observations in the field; he provided his students possibility to set up their own herbaria with correctly identified specimens in order to gain a thorough knowledge of the plants. Lindberg’s contribution to bryology is manifold, not only in morphology, taxonomy and floristics, but also in botanical nomenclature. He discovered ca. 50 new species for science from Scandinavia and about 200 new species from outside of the area, and he published some 250 scientific papers. Lindberg’s collection contains about 48 000 specimens and more than 5000 species from all over the world. S. O. Lindberg's collections are particularly important to the bryology of European and East Asian areas.

Another important bryophyte collection at the University of Helsinki, is from Lindberg’s student, Viktor Ferdinand Brotherus (1849–1929). Brotherus Herbarium is among the most known and important herbaria in the world for bryological research, it contains about 83 000 moss specimens of 15 500 species and over 5000 of type specimens. The specimens are from different parts of the world with a high representation from Australia, Brazil, Caucasia, China, India, New Zealand, and Patagonia. Brotherus was well-known as an authority on extra-European mosses, and his collection was mainly accumulated with collections sent to him for identification by botanists broad. Brotherus described 1800 moss species new for science and published numerous research papers. His major work includes Die Laubmoose Fennoskandias (1923), Musci of Die natürlichen Pflanzenfamilien” (1901-1909, 1924, 1925), and on Chinese mosses in Symbolae Sinicae (1929).

The collection at the Museum of Natural History LUOMUS contains circa 3.3 million herbarium specimens of plants and fungi. The annual increase is circa 20 000 specimens. The collections make up the national herbarium of Finland.

In November, the Finnish Museum of Natural History celebrates the 340th anniversary of its Natural History Collections.