royal alberta museum
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

We classify those organisms that contain chlorophyll as being plants. By this definition both mosses and lichens are plants. Mosses contain chlorophyll in their cells and therefore there is no question that they are true plants. Lichens are a symbiosis (combination) of both fungi and algae. The algal cells contain chlorophyll and thus lichens can be considered to be plants. Fungi, however, do not have chlorophyll and therefore are not considered to be part of the plant kingdom. Ironically, lichens are classified by their fungal component! So really, the answer here is a bit ambiguous. However, traditionally, we study lichens as being part of the plant kingdom.

Not including the algae, for which we do not have reliable figures, there are about 2,720 species of plants in Alberta. They are broken down as follows: 500 mosses, 140 liverworts, 580 lichens, and 1,500 native vascular plants. Compare this with the 100 species of mammals and 330 species of birds! Only insects and fungi have greater diversity in the province. And remember, these figures do not include the algae, which have a high species richness.

Because of their small size, these plants are often overlooked and we perceive them as being of limited importance. However, this is not the case. Recent studies have determined that mosses are the most important factor controlling nutrient flow in the boreal forest. If we did not have bryophytes we would not have the forest we currently have in Alberta. Alberta's forest industry, in fact, depends on the existence of mosses! And anyone who is a gardener is probably very familiar with a particular type of moss. Peat moss, scientifically known as Sphagnum, is truly a moss. Its ability to hold onto water and nutrients, even when chopped up, are qualities that make it extremely valuable for improving the quality of soils used in horticulture. These are but two examples of the many uses and critical importance of mosses to man and ecosystems.