Field of Science

A Tale of the Sphagnums that Weren't

There are over 350 different species of peat moss in the genus Sphagnum. All of them have a similar morphology with two different types of cells that make up their leaves. Large cells that are dead at maturity and small cells that are alive and contain green chloroplasts. The large hyaline cells have pores that open to the outside of the plant. When they fill with water they enable the plant to function as a sponge and hold up to 20X its dry weight in water. This is the feature that makes Sphagnum peat mosses the most economically important mosses in the world.

Below you can see both the large dead cells and small, green, live cells in a transverse section of a Sphagnum peat moss leaf.

I just finished reading a recent scientific article on peat mosses.

A. Jonathan Shaw, Cymon J. Cox, William R. Buck, Nicolas Devos, Alex M. Buchanan, Lynette Cave, Rodney Seppelt, Blanka Shaw, Juan LarraĆ­n, Richard Andrus, Johann Greilhuber and Eva M. Temsch. 2010. Newly resolved relationships in an early land plant lineage: Bryophyta class Sphagnopsida (peat mosses). American Journal of Botany 97:1511-1531.

These researchers set out to look at the relationships among the many species of Sphagnum peat mosses. Often plants or animals are initially grouped together based on their morphology (how they look on the outside). This has been the case with peat mosses too.  Using DNA sequence data, these scientists determined that some species traditionally placed in the genus Sphagnum really fall outside of this group. Since they no longer lie within Sphagnum they needed some new names.

One was given a new genus name (from Sphagnum inretortum to Eosphagnum inretortum) and placed into an already established family (Ambuchananiaceae). The prefix eo- means early or primitive, thus this would be the 'early peat moss'. For the other, both a new genus and family was created for the species (from Sphagnum sericeumm to Flatbergium sericeum in the Flatbergiaceae). I looked through the paper for some insight into the etymology of this name, but I did not think they mentioned anything specific about the naming.

Both still close relatives to their abandoned Sphagnum buddies. I know that the changing of plant and animal names may seem like a pain or trivial, but understanding which species are each others closest relatives is important. For example if you have a food allergy to a particular type of plant it is important to know who its close relatives are, because you might be allergic to them too. Or we might stumble across a new chemical in a plant that could be used in a medicine. Knowing that plant's relatives may help us to find similar kinds of helpful chemicals in other plants. Just something to think about when you hear about scientists changing the names of your favorite plant or animal.

Above is a surface view of the two different types of cells in a Sphagnum leaf.


  1. Very nicely presented.
    Keep up the good work!

  2. Hi,
    Came across your blog doing research on a story I'm doing as a science journalist. Great stuff!
    Just thought I should tell you that the name Flatbergiaceae comes from this norwegian moss researcher, Kjell Ivar Flatberg. (photo in this story

  3. Thanks for the info on the origin of the Flatbergiaceae name and the link to the photo!

  4. Kjell Ivar Flatberg is probably the best on Sphagnum in the world. He have described 15 (or 17) new Sphagnum species. There was a honouring symposium for him in Trondheim this fall. Just wanted to let you know a bit more.


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