Scientists 'Gobsmacked' About Findings on Moss

Lowly plant is 'potentially as significant' as vascular plants, yet often ignored: study
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted May 10, 2023 9:50 AM CDT
Updated May 14, 2023 4:10 PM CDT
Lowly Moss Is Far More Important Than You Think
A plant sprouts from moss, shown with shoots called sporophytes, which produce reproductive spores.   (Getty Images/oluolu3)

We've underestimated the power of the lowly moss beneath our feet, which fuels the cycling of nutrients in soil, sucks up carbon, and may even prevent the proliferation of pathogens and "antibiotic resistant genes," according to a new, worldwide study. Considered globally, mosses—under threat from climate change, land clearing, and overharvesting—are "potentially as significant" as vascular plants, according to researchers, who looked at moss samples from 123 sites, from tropical rainforest to desert, on every continent including Antarctica. "We were gobsmacked to find that mosses were doing all these amazing things" that are critical for sustaining life on our planet, says study author David Eldridge, an ecologist at the University of New South Wales, per Science Alert.

"We have a relatively poor understanding of how important they are, particularly the types of moss that thrive on soil," Eldridge and co-author Manuel Delgado-Baquerizo write at the Conversation. Soil mosses, not counting those in boreal forests, cover an estimated 3.6 million square miles, or roughly the size of China, per New Atlas. They not only increase the cycling of nutrients—soils beneath mosses were found to have more nitrogen, phosphorus, and magnesium than soils without plant cover—but also increase carbon sequestration. Mosses store an estimated 6.43 billion metric tons of carbon. This "might reduce microbial competition and their need to produce antibiotic resistant genes," according to the study published in Nature Geoscience, which also found a lower proportion of plant pathogens in moss-covered soil.

Some of the oldest land plants, mosses lack "the plumbing that an ordinary plant has," preventing them from growing tall and pulling water from beneath soil, which makes them particularly important in low productivity environments like deserts, according to the researchers. Certain mosses have specialized structures that allow them to conserve moisture, and some refuse to die even when they dry out. "We've taken mosses out of a packet after 100 years, squirted them with water, and watched them come to life," says Eldridge. "Their cells don't disintegrate like ordinary plants do." At the Conversation, the researchers note mosses are "likely to play increasingly important roles as vascular plants decline under predicted hotter, drier, and more variable global climates." But "their future is far from secure." (More moss stories.)

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