The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada voted in late 2019 to recommend that slender yoke-moss be listed by the federal government as endangered under the Species at Risk Act. The globally rare moss (pictured) lives on a square metre of limestone cliff on Haida Gwaii, and is facing threats from competing algae and lichens. (Wynne Miles/Submitted photo)

Federal government urged to protect rare moss clinging to life on Moresby Island cliff

Scientists say small patch of slender yoke-moss struggling to survive on square metre of limestone

An advisory panel to Environment and Climate Change Canada has recommended that a rare moss struggling to survive on Haida Gwaii should be protected as an endangered species.

Following an assessment completed last November, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) voted to recommend that slender yoke-moss be listed by the federal government as endangered under the Species at Risk Act.

University of Alberta plant scientist René Belland, who cochairs the mosses and lichens species specialist subcommittee of COSEWIC, told the Observer the patch of moss is clinging to life on a single square metre of limestone cliff on the northeast side of Moresby Island.

Globally rare, he said the tiny green colony is the lone known place in North America where the moss is found. Otherwise, only small amounts have been found in parts Europe.

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When it was first discovered in the 1960s by University of British Columbia (UBC) professor Wilf Schofield, Belland said the medium-sized moss was deemed healthy, with stems up to five centimetres high.

“I would describe it as a little spruce seedling with no branches that is really floppy,” Belland said.

However, UBC herbarium curator Karen Golinski was commissioned to revisit the moss about two years ago and reported it had become shaded by several young trees growing up beside the cliff, spurring overgrowth.

“Karen, when she was looking at it in 2018, she said it had been over-run by algae and lichens, and it looked like a filmy fern,” Belland said, adding that the new tree cover probably caused an increase in humidity. “When that happens, chances are the moss is going to lose.

“That’s really, really serious because there’s not much of that plant, so if it goes, chances are it will be gone from Canada and North America.”

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What makes the plant’s future more dire, Belland said, is that it seems to lack the ability to spread.

“It’s only been seen with spores once in England,” he said.

Rather than reproducing and spreading, the plant on Haida Gwaii seems to have been turning over asexually somehow, “like cells in a human body turning over in a lifespan.”

As such, Belland said the fact it has survived for the last 50 years on just one square metre of cliff is fascinating and makes the moss all the more mysterious and unique.

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Asked why there is only this one strip of the moss in North America, Belland replied, “that’s the million dollar question.”

Scientists surmise it was part of more widespread vegetation that no longer exists, perhaps from about 60 million years ago.

“The best guess — and it is just a guess — is that it would be Tertiary in origin,” he said.

For now, the focus is on securing federal protection.

If the government follows the recommendation of COSEWIC to declare slender yoke-moss as an endangered species — something Belland says may come in the next year or so — a recovery plan will be developed and implemented that would likely involve cutting some of the trees around the cliff.

“That’s the biggest, imminent threat that has to be addressed,” he said.

Public consultation could be part of the process.

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