Thursday, May 10, 2012

Where the Bodies are Buried ...

Today's Guardian Country Diary describes a field excursion with some Durham University biology students to Chapel Fell, between Weardale and Teesdale in Co. Durham 

We were lucky from the weather and the views were stunning, although there were still patches of snow on the ground so it was pretty bracing up there. This is just about the last place in the local landscape to show signs of spring but if you take your eyes off the view and look at the ground under your feet there are plenty of signs of growth in the upland mosses. Some beautiful lichens thrive here too.

Bogs like this are deep pools filled with Sphagnum moss and are a potential death trap. Stroll onto this fine green 'lawn' and you'd instantly disappear up to your neck (at least) in ice-cold water. 

Sphagnum moss is a living sponge that retains vast amounts of water, thanks to its unique leaf structure which you can see by clicking here. Once you get about a metre down from the surface it's pretty anaerobic and preserves biological materials (like drowned bodies) extremely well. You can read about some fine examples of corpses exhumed from peat bogs by clicking here.

In more open patches of water the moss takes on this very attractive starry appearance.

Sphagnum species identification is a specialist skill (there are around 36 species listed in the latest field guide) that I've never mastered and there are several species up here that would keep dedicated bryologists occupied for some time, including ...

.... this delightful claret-coloured example.

One day I'll learn to identify them, using his excellent key.

Polytrichum species thrive on the drier banks ....

.... and  this one,  which I think is Hylocomium splendens, has intensely red stems bearing yellowish leaves and does well amongst the heather stems that have yet to show much sign of new growth. 

This is also home to some fine lichens (mostly Cladonia species) .....

I think this may be Cladonia diversa


  1. Very interesting. Never knew that the homely sphagnum moss could conceal the crime so well!

  2. Beautiful, in my previous life as a florist I'm afraid we used sacks full of the stuff for wreath bases, I dread to think what damage was done to habitats. Now plastic foam is used.. :( green funerals, they way to go.
    Back in the 80's I worked in the area where 'Lindow Man' was found
    We went to take a look at him in Manchester museum, before he went off to London. Lindow Moss is both beautiful and eerie.

  3. Utterly fascinating - the things I learn on your blog. Isn't it a beautiful organism?

  4. It has a fascinating micro-fauna too lotusleaf - oards of microscopic animals live amongst its branches...

  5. I used to use peat-based potting composts a lot uphilldowndale, and although I now use the environmentally-friendly substitutes none of them as as good as the old stuff

  6. The spore capsules are beautiful too toffeeapple - like polished jet spheres on a short stalk, that build up air pressure inside and blow their lid off ..... unfortunately, they don't produce them very often.