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What is Bryology? - Definition & Advances

Instructor: Betsy Chesnutt

Betsy teaches college physics, biology, and engineering and has a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering

Bryology is the study of ancient plants, like mosses, that grow in moist, humid environments. These plants are some of the oldest species on Earth, but we are still learning new things about them every day! In this lesson, learn more about the exciting science of bryology.

The Beginning of Land Plants on Earth

Over 450 million years ago, during the Silurian period of Earth's prehistory, the first plants began to grow on land. These plants were small and grew very close to the ground. Over the years, they continued to evolve and change, and eventually plants came to occupy all of the land on Earth. Today, a wide variety of plant species, from tall trees to beautiful flowers to tiny mosses, all grow and thrive on Earth.

What is Bryology?

Although plants have changed a lot in the past 450 million years, growing today in an enormous variety of shapes and sizes, they can all be classified into two orders, called tracheophytes and bryophytes. Tracheophytes are plants, like trees, flowering plants, and grasses, that have a well-developed vascular system. In contrast, bryophytes are small plants that grow close together and do not have a vascular system, which makes them very similar to those first plants that grew on Earth millions of years ago. The study of these ancient plants is called bryology, and the scientists who study them are called bryologists.

Bryology is the study of bryophytes, like this moss that covers the forest floor.
Bryology is the study of bryophytes, like this moss that covers the forest floor

Types of Bryophytes

For a long time, bryologists thought that all bryophytes were very similar to each other. However, more recent research has shown that there are actually three distinct types of bryophytes that have evolved separately. These three types of bryophytes are commonly called mosses, liverworts, and hornworts.

The most common and abundant bryophytes are the mosses. Currently, there are around 9,000 different species of mosses that grow on Earth. Even though mosses can be very diverse, they all have some common features. All mosses are small plants that grow close together. In addition, mosses reproduce by releasing spores that germinate whenever they fall on a moist substrate. This can be the ground, the trunk of a tree, or even the side of a rock or building. As long as there is some water present, mosses can survive and grow. Mosses do not have roots, but do develop filaments that anchor the plants to the underlying substrate as they grow. Because they don't have roots, they grow by absorbing water and nutrients from rainwater that passes through the leaves of the plant. This is why they can only grow in environments that stay relatively moist and do not grow in dry, arid areas.

Liverworts and hornworts are similar to mosses in many ways. They also reproduce by releasing spores and grow primarily in damp environments. However, there are a few differences, most of which can be difficult to spot for people who are not bryologists. For example, most liverworts have lobed leaves, while mosses do not. But because the leaves are so small, this difference may not be immediately obvious. Liverworts also produce oils that give animals second thoughts about eating them.

Liverworts, like these, are also a type of bryophyte.
A liverwort is a type of bryophyte.

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