'We Were Gobsmacked': Giant Study Reveals Why Moss Is Vital For The Planet

The humble moss carries a surprising amount of impact for being such a little plant, more like a lush blanket than a forest or pasture. Researchers have just recently learned how important this varied collection of tiny plants is to ecosystems throughout the world in an exciting new study.

David Eldridge, an ecologist at the University of New South Wales in Australia, exclaims, "We were astounded to find that mosses were doing all these amazing things."

Eldridge and colleagues estimated populations of the plant cover an astounding 9.4 million square kilometers across the sorts of habitats evaluated after sampling mosses from more than a hundred sites spanning eight distinct ecosystems. This is around the size of Canada or China.

These ancient creatures, which are the ancestors of all currently existing plants, have simpler structures than their more recent offspring, with sprigs full of small leaves that are often only one cell thick. However, it does not lessen their power.

According to Eldridge, "Mosses don't have the plumbing that a typical plant does, such as a xylem and a phloem, which water travels through.

But moss obtains its water from the atmosphere in order to exist. Additionally, certain mosses curl as they become dry, like those in the arid regions of Australia, but they do not perish—instead, they continue to exist in suspended animation. We've sprayed dead mosses with water after they'd been in a package for 100 years and watched them spring to life. They don't have cells that break down as other plants do.

In each of the regions they analyzed, the researchers compared soils with and without moss, and they discovered that mossy soils had increased nutrient mobility, enhancing the cycling of everything from nitrogen and phosphate to organic matter. Additionally, moss serves as a reservoir for nutrients, including carbon, which now prevents 6.43 billion metric tons of this essential but troublesome element from entering our oversaturated atmosphere.

Eldridge says, "You've got all the global emissions from land use change, like grazing, clearing vegetation, and agricultural activities."

We believe that mosses absorb six times as much carbon dioxide as trees, hence the benefit is not equal but rather six times more.

Additionally, the study discovered that mosses appear to keep infections under control. According to studies, moss-inhabited soils included less potential plant pathogens, and remarkably, the microbiomes of mossy environments contained fewer antibiotic-resistant genes than those of bare ground.

Eldridge and colleagues speculate in their research that increases in soil carbon under mosses may lessen microbial competition and their need to create genes for antibiotic resistance.

For a succession of plant development that results in increasingly complex ecosystems, moss's shallow root tangles help hold the soil together. Moss also supports the preservation of surface microclimates.

In especially in regions where trees don't grow, such deserts and tundra, high densities of mat and turf mosses, including Sphagnum, Hylocomium, and Ptilium, contribute the most to soil biodiversity and ecosystems.

Moss is one of the first organisms to reappear following severe disruptions like volcanic eruptions, coming in second to cyanobacteria and algae.

"What we show in our research is that where mosses are present, you have a greater level of soil health, such as more carbon and more nitrogen," says Eldridge in closing.

"Mosses may well provide the ideal vehicle to launch the recovery of severely degraded urban and natural area soils," the study concluded.

This research was published in Nature Geoscience.