Our research is leading to a better understanding of the world of cryptogams, tiny and ancient organisms like lichens and bryophytes.

Part of our large collection of plants at the Australian National Herbarium is dedicated to a group of organisms called cryptogams. This group consists of lichens, liverworts, mosses and hornworts. The one feature these all have in common is that they reproduce by spores. They do not produce flowers or seeds.

Within this group, the mosses, liverworts and hornworts are collectively called bryophytes. Bryophytes are non-vascular plants which means they do not have internal conducting systems for transporting nutrients. They can vary in size from tiny, just over a millimetre tall to those that grow as hanging strands ending up well over a metre in length.

Bryophytes include hornworts, liverworts and mosses.

Lichens are in a group of their own. They are not plants but the result of a partnership between a fungus and a green alga or a cyanobacterium which is called a symbiosis. A symbiosis can be mutually beneficial (mutualistic), beneficial to only one of the organisms (commensalistic) or parasitic, where one organism causes harm to the other. The body of a lichen consists of fungal filaments (hyphae) surrounding cells of green algae and/or blue-green cyanobacteria.

Very useful tiny organisms

In Australia there are approximately 2,000 species of bryophytes, made up of about 1,200 species of mosses, 900 liverworts and 20 hornworts. Of the 20 000 lichens known worldwide, Australia is home to over 3000 of them.

These typically small organisms are important in water retention and nutrient recycling in many habitats, including forming biological soil crusts, which prevent soil erosion in rangelands in semi-arid and arid regions.

Biological soil crusts make life possible for higher plants and therefore for animals and humans. Crust organisms work together to weather rock; fix nitrogen; break down chemicals into more accessible nutrients; bind loose particles and hold moisture.

Bryophytes and lichens can live in almost all parts of the terrestrial world, from Antarctica to arid Australia and in our rainforests, and in habitats from sea-level to alpine and even occur in suburban backyards.

Our research

Bryophytes are interesting from an evolutionary point of view, being considered the amphibians of the plant world for the ancient characteristics that link them both to their algal ancestors and to terrestrial plants.

Yet there is still much mystery surrounding the evolution of these important organisms.

Our researchers are using the collection at the Australian National Herbarium to better understand the taxonomy, evolutionary relationships, biogeography and ecology of bryophytes.

This work has built a better picture of the species of the liverwort genus Riccia which make up biological soil crusts in the monsoon tropics of northern Australia compared to those that occur in southern Australia. Or how a tiny salt-tolerant liverwort, Monocarpus sphaerocarpus growing around salt lakes and marshes has managed to spread right across southern Australia. Could it be by spores carried by wind or on the feathers or feet of wading birds?

Interested in tiny things? We’ve teamed up to take a look at microbes in the environment.

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