Field of Science

Pitchfork Mosses

Dicranum flagellare, photographed by Sue. The upright green stalks are the brood branches.

The subject of today's post is the cosmopolitan moss genus Dicranum, sometimes known as fork mosses or, apparently, wind-blown mosses. Dicranum species are characterised by elongate narrow leaves and an erect, often forked growth habit. In some habitats, Dicranum species may form reasonably extensive turfs. The genus name comes from the Greek word for a pitchfork and apparently refers to the teeth of the peristome (the ring of teeth around the opening of the spore capsule) though, if this is true, naming these mosses after a feature of the spore capsule may not necessarily have been the best idea. Many Dicranum populations produce sporophytes relatively rarely (a diagram of the moss life cycle was included in this post). Instead, these populations more commonly reproduce asexually through the production of vegetative propagules by the gametophyte. Once such species, the Holarctic Dicranum flagellare, produces terminal clusters of reduced branches, called 'brood branches'. If detached from the parent plant, these brood branches can grow into a new moss. A notable dispersal agent for brood branches, as it turns out, is slugs (Kimmerer & Young 1995). Brood branches break off the parent plant as the slug crawls past them, adhering to the slug by means of its slime. The trail of slime left by the slug also greatly improves the chance of a brood branch adhering to a suitable substrate once it becomes separated from its transport.

Dicranum scoparium, photographed by Li Zhang.

Because of the rarity of sporophytes, species of Dicranum are mostly distinguished by features of the leaves. Dicranum leaves may be straight or curved, the edge of the leaf may be smooth or toothed, and the blade of the leaf may be composed of one or two cell layers. Many species are characterised by the shape of the leaf in transverse section (Hedenäs & Bisang 2004). When sporophytes are produced, Dicranum species are dioicous: that is, they have separate male and female plants. However, in a number of species, the male plants are reduced in size and grow epiphytically on the leaves or rhizoids of the larger female plants. At least one species, Dicranum scoparium, has both dwarf and full-sized males (Hedenäs & Bisang 2004). Some Dicranum species have wide distributions, with a number found almost throughout Eurasia and North America, but others have more restricted distributions (D. transsylvanicum, for instance, is known from a single location in western Romania). Dicranum species are often very selective habitat-wise, with species differing in their choice of habitat, and they have been used as indicators of environmental conditions. This habitat selectivity can result in fragmented species distributions: for instance, Dicranum muehlenbeckii (which grows in dry, calcareous or mineral-rich environments) is found in central Europe, but is also known from a single locality in central Sweden. Dicranum scoparium, a more generalist species found in both humid and dry conditions, is widespread in Eurasia and North America, but is also known from New Zealand and a single region of Australia, near Mt Kosciuszko in New South Wales. As noted in a previous post, much ink has been spilled as regards the biogeographic processes underlying disjunct distributions in moss taxa. In that light, it should be pointed out that, while Australian and New Zealand specimens of Dicranum scoparium do tend to be less robust than the average Holarctic specimen, no molecular differences have yet been identified between the populations (Klazenga 2012).


Hedenäs, L., & I. Bisang. 2004. Key to European Dicranum species. Herzogia 17: 179-197.

Kimmerer, R. W., & C. C. Young. 1995. The role of slugs in dispersal of the asexual propagules of Dicranum flagellare. The Bryologist 98 (1): 149-153.

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