After traversing tree-lined trails or hiking through wooded wilderlands, few outdoor enthusiasts stop to ask themselves, “how many mosses did I see today?”
Unless, that is, you’re Jennifer Doubt. A curator of botany at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, Doubt is one of four biologists, researchers and lovers of all things related to the green and fuzzy plants, who traveled North earlier this month for a fieldwork expedition in the territory.
On July 3, Doubt, along with fellow museum technician Cassandra Robillard, University of Alberta instructor Rene Belland and Marion Barbe of the Forest Research Institute, set out along the territory’s waterfall route – a hotbed of biodiversity – in search of every species of moss they could find and collect.
“There’s not much known about the mosses (in the NWT) – there’s a lot to know …,” said Doubt in an interview with News/North.
The group’s desire to learn more about the mosses that call the territory home was shared by the territorial government’s Environment and Natural Resources (ENR). The department backed the collective’s bid to document moss diversity in southern NWT by sending a summer student to assist the Northern newcomers.
“ENR is really interested in what natural resources there are in the territory,” said Doubt.
“Part of the reason we’re doing this work is get a better understanding of which species are rare and which are common. It’s a chance to refine information,” she added.
For those wondering what all the fuss on forest fuzz is about, Cassandra Robillard said the rootless plants aren’t just tiny, they’re “underrated” – and important.
Bite-size bryophytes – the scientific grouping of mosses and liverworts – play a big role in the ecosystems they belong to.
The porous plants, which can seek out sunny spots or hunker down in humid crevices, act as sponges, soaking up large amounts of water and rainfall. Their knack of holding water, Robillard said, can safeguard against flooding and harmful erosion..
Mosses feed forest-dwellers and provide nest materials for birds and according to Doubt, their supporting role is especially integral in the North.
“The farther North you go the less able those flowers and ferns and trees are able to deal with the cold and dry climate. So, mosses and lichens become more and more important in the ecosystems they’re in,” said Doubt.
To learn more about the mosses they encountered – many times by sticking their heads in nature’s dimly-lit nooks and crannies – the group collected samples and lots of them.
“I would guess 500 samples (were taken), but that represents maybe 150 different kinds,” said bryophyte expert and conservationist Rene Belland.
Belland said the team encountered a surprisingly large amount of Seligeria, a species of moss.
“I’ve seen Seligeria right across the country and I’ve never seen it as abundant as in some of the crevices we looked at,” said Belland.
“It’s the Seligeria capital of Canada,” added Doubt with a laugh.
But its presence might not always remain so bountiful.
“All of the Seligeria, as far as the data suggests so far, show that the species are either sensitive or may be at risk,” said Doubt.
In taking stock of the territory’s mosses, Doubt said the trip was also meant to “focus on mosses that are at risk.”
With hundreds of samples now gathered, Belland said the “vouchers” will go back south with their respective collectors, destined for testing. After being identified, analyzed and archived, sample results will be relayed to ENR.
For Doubt, the excursion was an opportunity to map one of mother nature’s most “misunderstood” and overlooked members.
“They’re small compared to us and so we develop this misconception that they have a small or insignificant role, but there’s an awful lot of it when you start to look around – and very important,” said Doubt.
The passionate mob of moss enthusiasts told News/North they hope to make another trip to the North in the future.