Liverworts and Hornworts of New Brunswick

This website is home to the checklist of the liverworts and hornworts of New Brunswick. It is intended to serve as an easily accessible resource for scientists and laypeople who wish to know more about the tiny plants that often go unnoticed throughout our province. This website compliments our peer-reviewed academic publication of the same name (Haughian et al. 2016). Students and professionals wishing to cite our work should refer to the latter.

What is a Checklist?
UNB Logo

In biology, a ‘checklist’ is a published and annotated list of species within a defined geographic area. Most commonly, checklists represent a restricted subset of the total species diversity (e.g., birds, trees, amphibians), because the author of the list has expertise that are limited to that particular subset. Checklists usually represent the first step towards developing a more extensive tool such as a flora, which would include more detailed descriptions of species, keys to identification, or ecological information.

What are Liverworts?

Liverworts are tiny plants; in fact, ‘wort’ is an old-English word for ‘plant’. The ‘liver’ part of the word comes from observations that the surface texture of some of the first-named liverworts looked much like that of a mammalian liver. Another term used to describe them, ‘hepatic’, also refers to this resemblance. In actuality, only a small number of the estimated 9000 species do resemble a liver (e.g., Conocephalum conicum), but the name has stuck. The scientific name for the group is Marchantiophyta, and it is considered a ‘subdivision’ of division Bryophyta within kingdom Plantae. This subdivisional classification should probably be upgraded to division, as recent evidence has shown that other bryophytes (mosses and hornworts) actually have independent origins from liverworts, and are no more related to liverworts than grasses, ferns or pine trees. Nevertheless, liverworts, hornworts, and mosses share many structural characteristics, and so are still often lumped together as the Bryophyta for convenience.

Like mosses, liverworts are non-vascular, meaning they don’t have internal water-moving tissues; in contrast, trees, grasses, herbs, and most of the large plants that we interact with directly are vascular, meaning they have roots to collect water, and stem tissues to move water to the tips of their leaves. Because liverworts can’t move water from the soil to their leaves, they rely on atmospheric water (mainly rain or fog) to stay wet. Staying wet, for at least part of the time, is important, because water is required for photosynthesis, and photosynthesis is necessary to stay alive and grow.

Although liverworts don’t have roots, they do resemble larger plants in some respects. They have rhizoids (which is a scientific word meaning ‘root-like things’), that help them to stick to the surface they are growing upon. Many liverworts (those of the class Jungermanniales) also have phyllids (a scientific word meaning ‘leaf-like things’), that are made up mostly of photosynthetic cells (cells containing chloroplasts, which is where photosynthesis actually takes place). Both of these organs tend to be one cell thick. The caulids (stem-like things), on the other hand, tend to be several cells thick.

Some liverworts, however, lack clearly defined phyllids and caulids. Instead, they are what we call ‘thallose’ liverworts (classes Marchantiales and Metzgeriales). Thallose liverworts look like a plant that has been squashed down into 2 dimensions. Instead of a stem with leaves, they look like a single large leaf, or a stem with a continuous green membrane along each side.

Like other members of the Bryophyta, the main body of the liverwort is what we call a gametophyte phase, meaning it is haploid and produces gametes. But what makes them different from other plants isnot that they have a gametophyte phase, but that the gametophyte phase is dominant and free-living in the life cycle. In contrast, the main body of a vascular plant (like a carrot) is diploid or polyploid; only specialized organs (e.g., ovaries or anthers) produce gametes, and those organs are completely dependent upon the sporophyte for their energy. In liverworts and other Bryophyta, the opposite is true: the sporophyte phase is dependent upon the gametophyte for energy. In general, the sporophyte phase in liverworts is represented by a stalked organ that grows out of the main body, and produces spores from a small capsule at the tip.

What are Hornworts?

Hornworts are another of the groups of tiny plants that are lumped together in division Bryophyta. The scientific name for their subdivision is Anthocerophyta – a name derived from the ancient Greek words anthos (bloom or blossom) and ceros (horn). This descriptive name refers to the spore-producingorgans of the hornworts, which look like horns or antlers.

Hornworts are superficially similar to thallose liverworts, but differ in some important ways. First, they have only a single large chloroplast in each photosynthetic cell. Liverworts, mosses, and vascular plants all have multiple chloroplasts. Second, their sporophytes grow from the base, rather than the tip. Third, like mosses, they have stomata (little gas-exchanging pores) on their spore-capsules. Another common feature in hornworts is that they tend to be symbiotically associated with cyanobacteria, although some liverworts also have a primitive association of this type.

Far less is known about hornworts than liverworts or mosses. There are about 300 named hornwort species, but very few occur in boreal and temperate regions, and those that do grow primarily on muddyor silty banks and shores. Because of this combination of wet habitat, small size and short duration of sporophytes, most Canadian hornworts could be easily mistaken for a smear of algae at first glance.

Collecting liverworts and hornworts

Just like with other plants, it's a good idea to avoid collecting anything that looks like a rare or threatened species. If you're not sure, you can always take a photo, tie a strip of flagging tape at the location, and ask an expert for help determining whether you can collect it. Generally, when you do collect, you want to take enough that you have lots of material to work with for your identifications, but avoid taking entire clumps or colonies. A good rule ot thumb is that you want a small handful (a patch of ~ 2-4 square inches), preferrably with mature shoots and sporophytes, because it can be hard to identify the species without all the organs being present.

When collecting epiphytes and non-vascular plants in the field, we are far less exacting than we are with vascular plants.  This is because most mosses, liverworts, and lichens rehydrate and become malleable very easily, so if they happen to dry in a funny pose it is not a big deal.  Usually we just place samples in paper bags (which we of course label with any relevant information about the location and circumstances of specimen collection), and let them air-dry in the lab.  If you have particularly wet specimens it is sometimes worthwhile to use a drying oven (not the same thing as the oven you bake cookies with), because if left wet for a long period of time they may become mouldy or smelly.  Once your specimens have become mostly dry, it’s time to ID them. 

If you don't have access to local flora or keys, I'd recommend checking out the Bryophyte Flora of North America website. Even if you're not sure where to start, you should at least be able to assign specimens to a family or super-family level of designation by looking at pictures.  Once they have been identified you need to place them in herbarium packets.  Most museums and herbariums with a bryophyte specialist would be quite willing to help you get a more precise ID if you offer them well-documented specimens to add to their collections. 

Although not exactly complex origami, folding herbarium packets does require a little bit of practice, because how well you fold it affects the longevity and durability of a sample.  Using high-quality, acid free paper (will be provided), fold the long sides inwards to create a 3-4 cm flap.  Next, fold the paper in three equal pieces, with the folds parallel to the short edge (like a letter).  The top-most flap is where you write the label information.

Usually, we try to keep herbarium packets to less than 2 inches thick, because beyond that they tend to ‘leak’ bits of the specimen.  Once you’ve labelled the packet and enclosed your epiphyte sample, you may take your sample home to start your own personal herbarium, or donate it to a professional herbarium nearby.

Folding herbarium packets:

Herbarium Packet Folding

Example herbarium packet label:

Bryophyta: Brachythecium sp.
Collection Date: October 27, 2010
Collected by: Sean Haughian
Identified by: Sean Haughian
Substrate: Lower trunk of hardwood tree (maple?)
Location: N side of quad, UNB SJ campus
Notes: There may also be some liverworts growing among the shoots

Who funded this work?

This project (the compiling of a checklist of liverworts for the province of New Brunswick) was financially supported by the New Brunswick Wildlife Trust Fund (, the University of New Brunswick (, by the Atlantic Canada Conservation Data Centre (, and by the first author.