Can bryophytes be used to characterize hydrologic permanence in forested headwater streams?

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Recent court cases have questioned whether all headwater streams, particularly those that are not perennial, fall within the protective boundaries of the Clean Water Act. Rapid field-based indicators of hydrologic permanence are critically needed for jurisdictional determinations. The study objective was to determine whether characteristics of bryophyte assemblages in forested headwater streams can be useful indicators of hydrologic permanence. We sampled bryophytes from the channel thalweg at 113 sites across 10 forests in the U.S. which varied in hydrologic permanence. Hydrologic permanence was based on hydrologic status during spring (wet season) and late summer (dry season) visits. Perennial sites had flow (surface or visibly interstitial) during both spring and summer visits. Intermittent sites flowed during spring but were either dry or had surface water limited to isolated pools in summer. Ephemeral sites did not have flow during either visit. The species composition significantly differed between ephemeral and perennial stream reaches. The species composition of intermittent streams overlapped with both ephemeral and perennial streams. Three species and six families were identified as indicators of particular permanence classes. Liverworts occurred more frequently at perennial than at intermittent or ephemeral sites. Bryophytes with cushion and turf growth forms were common to ephemeral sites, whereas mat and weft forms were more common to perennial sites. Acrocarpous mosses were more frequent at ephemeral than at perennial sites. The frequencies of bryophyte-moisture associations (derived from the literature) across the three permanence categories were significantly different. Species associated with dry habitats were more frequently encountered at ephemeral than perennial sites, whereas species associated with wet habitats were more frequent at perennial than ephemeral sites. Species richness varied among forests and permanence classes. Ephemeral sites tended to have higher species richness than perennial sites; however, this pattern did not hold for all forests. Bryophytes should be included among the tools for jurisdictional determinations, much like vascular plants are used to help delineate wetlands. Growth forms and higher level taxonomy of bryophytes (i.e., phyla) can be particularly useful for making jurisdictional determinations because of their ability to discriminate ephemeral from intermittent and perennial reaches and they are measures that can be rapidly trained and routinely used by agencies making such determinations.

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Ecological Indicators