Skip to main content

Biologist creates moss field guide for amateur naturalists

Local biologist Dr. Joseph Rohrer has helped create a field guide that will help amateur naturalists more easily identify 200 common mosses, including more than 180 species that are found in Wisconsin. Thanks to a local biologist, amateur naturalists now have a field guide that will help them more easily identify 200 common mosses in the Northeast and Appalachian Mountains, including more than 180 species that are found in Wisconsin.

Dr. Joseph Rohrer, professor of biology at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, is a co-author of a first-of-its-kind field guide to help non-scientists recognize common mosses.

"I think of the book as a celebration of the beauty and diversity of mosses," Rohrer said. "To most people, they are just small green plants, often not even distinguishable from algae. Probably their small size gives an impression of small significance in the natural world. But they are important members of the ecosystem."

While there are field guides for everything from trees and wildflowers to rocks and road kill, there were no books for the amateur naturalist who wanted to know how to recognize the mosses of Wisconsin, Rohrer said.

"With just this guidebook, a hand lens and a spray bottle, nature enthusiasts will be able to identify many of the common moss species that they find in their backyards, neighborhood parks and state forests," Rohrer said. "It gives people who don't have a scientific background but have a love of nature access to the beautiful but often overlooked world of mosses."

The guidebook features detailed line drawings, more than 400 color photographs, tips for moss collecting, and an innovative color-tab system that helps readers identify moss species.

"Of all of my scholarly works, I like this field guide the best," Rohrer said. "I like it because it might help non-scientists become interested in the diversity of life on our planet. My hope is that as people understand that even the smallest things — like mosses — are important to our ecosystem, they will be more committed to saving biodiversity of all kinds."

"Common Mosses of the Northeast and Appalachians" is compact in size and has a plastic cover, making it durable and easy for people to carry into wetlands and other moist areas where mosses typically can be found, Rohrer said.

In addition to the scientific names assigned to the 200 moss species, the book also includes common names for each moss species, names that the guidebook's authors created to help readers more easily identify and remember the different species, Rohrer said.

"The average person isn't going to remember complex Latin names for moss species," Rohrer said. "So we felt free to give them common names — some typical and some silly — that are descriptive of each species. Our names will help people better differentiate and remember the various moss species. For example, we called one train track moss because when we look at that particular moss it looks to us like train tracks. Your average person can look at it, use the train tracks reference to differentiate it from other mosses and also remember its name."

While Rohrer's graduate school dissertation was on mosses, he has done little research or teaching on mosses in the years since he earned his Ph.D. Instead, identifying and studying mosses has mostly been a casual hobby, he said.

"One of the guidebook's co-authors, Karl McKnight, was a friend of mine in graduate school," Rohrer said. "He started working on a guidebook but realized if he wanted to create something that would be of interest to a larger population he needed help. He invited me to join the project, it sounded interesting, and it brought me back to a field of study that has always interested me but that I'd done little with in many years."

The challenge of creating a guidebook for nature enthusiasts who didn't have high-end scientific equipment or knowledge of complex scientific terms was intriguing, Rohrer said.

"We played around with a lot of ideas when trying to figure out how we could help someone without a microscope and no understanding of mosses to be able to go into their backyard and identify what's there," Rohrer said. "The people we wanted to reach are the folks who are not scientists but are very interested in birds, trees, wild flowers and nature in general."

He expects the field guidebook also will be of interest to academics who want to incorporate the study of mosses into their curriculums, Rohrer said, noting that the authors included dichotomous keys in the book for more advanced users.

"This is the first book that I know of that will help to gently introduce students to the world of mosses," said Rohrer. "Other textbooks require students to jump right in, which made it difficult for professors to teach and students to learn. You almost had to already understand mosses to even begin studying them. Our guidebook provides an entrance point for people, or a gentle way to introduce them to the study of mosses."

In spring 2014 Rohrer will lead a workshop on moss species at Beaver Creek Reserve. He hopes additional workshops will follow as interest in the guidebook and mosses grow in the region and state.

The guidebook's authors include Rohrer; Dr. Karl McKnight, associate professor of biology at St. Lawrence University in New York; Kirsten McKnight Ward, botanist, author and artist; and Warren Perdrizet, a recent graduate of St. Lawrence University in New York.

For more information about the field guide, contact Dr. Joseph Rohrer at 715-836-5586 or