The Science of Reindeer Moss | Habitat, Distribution, Characteristics & Reproduction

Reindeer moss close up

Reindeer Moss (scientific name: Cladonia rangiferina) is not a true moss but a lichen (a symbiotic relationship between a fungus and an alga). It is found in arctic and boreal regions where it serves as a primary food source for reindeer (hence the name) and caribou during the winter months. It is often used in gardens but also indoors as part of an ornamental piece. In this article, we will cover the scientific name, taxonomy, habitat, distribution, ecological importance, physical characteristics, internal structure, and reproduction.

1. Scientific Name

The scientific name for Reindeer Moss is Cladonia rangiferina.

2. Synonyms

Reindeer Moss is the most used common name for Cladonia rangiferina but it is also referred to as;

  • Caribou Moss;
  • Deer Moss;
  • Reindeer Lichen;
  • Greygreen Reindeer Lichen;
  • Reindeer Lichen; and
  • Caribou Lichen.

3. Taxonomy

The taxonomic classification of Reindeer Moss is as follows:

  • Kingdom: Fungi
  • Division: Ascomycota
  • Class: Ascomycetes
  • Order: Lecanorales
  • Family: Cladoniaceae
  • Genus: Cladina
  • Species: Cladonia rangiferina

4. Habitat

Reindeer Moss can adapt to a wide range of habitats and is found in the arctic tundra, boreal forests, and pine heaths. This plant prefers well-drained, sandy, or rocky substrates and, as a lichen, is one of the first life forms that covered our planet. It can colonize areas that are often inhospitable for other plants.

4.1 Arctic Tundra

As a lichen, it forms extensive mats that cover the ground in the Arctic Tundra. This creates a whitish-green landscape that looks surreal and beautiful.

The tundra’s cold, dry, and windy conditions are challenging for most plant species, but Cladonia rangiferina thrives here. This is due to its low water requirements and it can withstand freezing temperatures.

4.2 Boreal Forests

Reindeer Moss can also be found in open areas on the forest floor of the boreal forests or taiga. These forests are dominated by coniferous trees which give a bit more shelter if you compare it to the tundra. The nutrient-poor soils and acidic nature of the soils of these forests are perfect for this lichen because it does not need (unlike most other plants) fertile rich soil.

This plant is crucial for the survival of many animal species, such as caribou or reindeer, in the area because in winter the food sources are scarce.

4.3 Pine Heaths

Pine heaths are another habitat where you can find Reindeer Moss. These open, sandy areas are dominated by pine trees and offer the ideal conditions for Reindeer Moss to grow because of the ample sunlight, the well-drained soil, and of course, minimal competition from other ground cover.

4.4 Adaptations to Extreme Conditions

Their ability to survive in diverse and often challenging habitats is the result of millions of years of evolution where they survived all kinds of climate extremes so they had to adapt.

The densely branched structure reduces wind exposure and minimizes water loss and the hollow branches can store moisture. This allows it to survive periods of drought. It can also dormant state during unfavorable conditions but it will resume growth when the environment becomes favorable again.

4.5 Importance to the Habitat

Reindeer Moss has been extremely important for the evolution of life but still playas a critical role in its habitats. It creates soil formation and stabilization by preventing erosion and creating a substrate in soil-poor areas so that other plants to colonize.

It is also able to fix atmospheric nitrogen which enriches the soil and the large mats of Reindeer Moss also create insulation in the ground. It also moderates the soil temperature and moisture levels, ultimately benefiting the lichen and other plants in the area.

5. Distribution

The distribution of Reindeer Moss is widespread which shows the adaptability of this lichen. It has a circumpolar distribution because it is found all over the planet from the northern parts of North America to Europe, and Asia, and it has adapted to each different environment.

5.1 North America

Reindeer Moss covers large areas of the ground in the arctic tundra regions of Canada and Alaska. It is a critical part of the diet for caribou and reindeer populations and other smaller plant eaters. This lichen is also found in the boreal forests of Canada where it forms extensive mats on the forest floor due to the ideal habitat of moist and cold below the coniferous trees.

Besides food for grazing mammals, it also stabilizes the soil and plays an important role in nutrient recycling.

5.2 Europe

The distribution of Reindeer Moss in Europe spans from the Scandinavian countries through the boreal forests of Russia.

In Scandinavia, it is a prominent plant and a common sight as part of the landscape because it covers vast areas of the ground in the tundra and the taiga biomes.

The cool and humid climate of these regions, in combination with the acidic soils, are optimal conditions for Reindeer Moss to thrive. It can survive in low-nutrient environments which allows it to dominate in areas where other ground cover won’t survive.

5.3 Asia

Across Asia, Reindeer Moss’s distribution goes from the Siberian tundra and boreal forests and mirrors the same circumpolar pattern as found in North America and Europe. The harsh and cold environment of Siberia is the type of extreme conditions that Reindeer Moss has adapted to. Here it is also a very important food source for herds of reindeer and supports the lives of these animals, also the traditional herding culture of the locals.

5.4 Succes Factors

Four main factors caused Reindeer Moss to be so successful and to be able to have such a widespread distribution:

  1. Its ability to withstand extreme cold and drought conditions;
  2. Reindeer moss colonizes environments that are inhospitable to many other species;
  3. It has a slow growth rate and longevity meaning that once established, it can survive and expand in an area for many years by gradually expanding its coverage.
  4. It can fix atmospheric nitrogen and therefore it can thrive in nutrient-poor soils where competition from other plants is minimal.

6. Ecological Importance

The broad distribution of Reindeer Moss across the northern hemisphere shows how much of our nature depends on this plant. As a pioneering plant, it has been crucial for the development of more complex life forms on the planet and it still plays a crucial role in soil formation and stabilization.

Reindeer moss in a field
Reindeer moss in a field

It creates habitats for other plants or animals who follow once the conditions are made less harsh by the Reindeer Moss. Many of the herbivores in these cold and humid regions depend on it because it is their primary food source during the winter months.

Reindeer Moss has established itself as a key component of northern ecosystems from the arctic tundra to boreal forests and even beyond and contributes to the ecological balance of these regions. As a pioneering plant but also as a food source the big grazers from these regions. Without this lichen, very little life would’ve been possible.

7. Physical Characteristics

Reindeer Moss has an intricate physical appearance what is important to its ecological role and survival strategies. This lichen is of a pale green to whitish coloration but can vary with environmental conditions (especially moisture levels and light exposure). The physical form and structure are characterized by a densely branched, fruticose (shrub-like) growth habit that looks a bit similar to miniature trees or coral.

Close up of Reindeer Moss
Close-up of Reindeer Moss

7.1 Coloration

The color of Reindeer Moss ranges can range from a deep, vibrant green to a pale, almost white hue. The color variation is dependent on the moisture content within the lichen. Whenever it is wet, it looks greener and when the moisture levels drop, it appears lighter in color. Because of its beautiful color and structure, live Reindeer moss is often used in gardens or for indoor decorations.

7.2 Structure and Form

This lichen has a densely branched structure which is perfected by nature/evolution in capturing moisture and nutrients. The branches are finely divided and grow in a radial pattern from the center which can create a cushion or carpet-like form on the substrate.

By growing this way, it can maximize the surface areas it covers and ensure exposure to sunlight for photosynthesis while minimizing water loss through evaporation. The branches of this plant are hollow for water retention which helps Reindeer Moss survive during periods of drought.

7.3 Height and Coverage

Reindeer Moss can grow up to 10 cm in height but the growth is very slow so it can take years before it reaches full size.

Even though it is a slow grower, it can form large mats that cover large areas of the ground. These mats are important as a habitat and food resource for small or large organisms, from microfauna to large herbivores.

Aduls size Reindeer moss
Aduls size Reindeer moss

7.4 Texture

The texture of Reindeer Moss is soft and spongy if it is moist and tasty for herbivores but ti becomes fragile and brittle if it is dry. But this is part of their survival strategy because fragments can break off during extensive droughts but they can grow into new plants once the moisture levels return. This is the same strategy as most mosses do with fragmentation.

8. Internal Structure

The internal structure of Reindeer Moss (Cladonia rangiferina) is created by a complex symbiotic relationship that defines lichens. As a lichen, this plant is a composite organism that is made up of a fungus (the mycobiont) and an alga or cyanobacterium (the photobiont).

8.1 Symbiotic Relationship

The base of the internal structure of Reindeer Moss is a symbiotic relationship between the mycobiont and the photobiont. The mycobiont creates a structure that serves as a protective environment for the photobiont. The photobiont, on the other hand, produces carbohydrates (through photosynthesis) to feed both of the organisms. This type of relationship creates an almost unbeatable superorganism that can survive in places where others can’t.

8.2 Mycobiont Structure

The mycobiont forms the bulk of Reindeer Moss’s structure and it creates a network of hyphae that envelop the photobiont cells.

These hyphae form the lichen’s thallus (the visible part of Reindeer Moss). The thallus’s outer layer (also called the cortex), contains of tightly packed hyphae to protect the inner layers from UV radiation, desiccation, or other kinds of environmental stress.

Beneath this cortex, you can find a looser layer of hyphae which is known as the medulla and provides a habitat for the photobiont cells and enables gas exchange.

8.3 Photobiont Location and Function

The photobiont cells are within the medulla and they are positioned perfectly to receive light for photosynthesis while, at the same time, they are being protected by the mycobiont’s structure.

These cells contain chlorophyll which enables them to capture light energy to convert carbon dioxide and water into glucose. This glucose is a source of energy for the alga or cyanobacterium and the fungus as well.

Without this photosynthetic process, Reindeer moss wouldn’t survive, especially in nutrient-poor environments where organic carbon sources are scarce.

8.4 Water and Nutrient Uptake

As a lichen, Reindeer moss does not have the roots, stems, and leaves you can find in vascular plants.

It absorbs nutrients and water through its thallus and gets it straight from the air and precipitation. The spongy structure of this lichen enables it to survive periods of drought because it captures the water and can retain it for long periods.

And it has one more adaption which makes it save water for long periods. The thallus is coated with specialized compounds that help it absorb water nutrition and water vapor from its surroundings.

Tip: You can buy living Reindeer moss here.

9. Reproduction

Reindeer Moss can reproduce both sexually and asexually in a similar way as the mosses. This ensures it to populate vast areas and reproduce by cloning (fragmentation) when ‘normal’ reproduction is not possible or not favorable.

9.1 Sexual Reproduction

Sexual reproduction is achieved in a similar way as most plants do. Reindeer moss produces spores that are taken away by wind or water. Once they land in an environment that suits them, they will encounter compatible photobiont cells to create a new symbiotic relationship and a new thallus will begin to grow.

9.2 Asexual Reproduction

Asexual reproduction is very common and occurs when the thallus is fragmented. This method is very effective in colonizing large areas. The fragmentation can be caused by animals, humans, or even by the wind or other environmental forces.

The fragments are mycobiont and photobiont and can establish themselves in new locations and grow into new individuals but because they are clones, they’ll also need sexual reproduction to ensure diversity in the genetic pool.

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