Bryophytes are the closest extant relatives of early terrestrial plants. The first bryophytes (liverworts) most likely appeared in the Ordovician period, about 450 million years ago. Because they lack lignin and other resistant structures, the likelihood of bryophytes forming fossils is rather small. Some spores protected by sporopollenin have survived and are attributed to early bryophytes. By the Silurian period (435 MYA), however, vascular plants had spread through the continents. This compelling fact is used as evidence that non-vascular plants must have preceded the Silurian period.
More than 25,000 species of bryophytes thrive in mostly damp habitats, although some live in deserts. They constitute the major flora of inhospitable environments like the tundra, where their small size and tolerance to desiccation offer distinct advantages. They generally lack lignin and do not have actual tracheids (xylem cells specialized for water conduction). Rather, water and nutrients circulate inside specialized conducting cells. Although the term non-tracheophyte is more accurate, bryophytes are commonly called non-vascular plants.
In a bryophyte, all the conspicuous vegetative organs—including the photosynthetic leaf-like structures, the thallus (“plant body”), stem, and the rhizoid that anchors the plant to its substrate—belong to the haploid organism or gametophyte. The male gametes formed by bryophytes swim with a flagellum, so fertilization is dependent on the presence of water. The bryophyte embryo also remains attached to the parent plant, which protects and nourishes it. The sporophyte that develops from the embryo is barely noticeable. The sporangium—the multicellular sexual reproductive structure in which meiosis produces haploid spores—is present in bryophytes and absent in the majority of algae. This is also a characteristic of land plants.
The bryophytes are divided into three phyla: the liverworts or Hepaticophyta, the hornworts or Anthocerotophyta, and the mosses or true Bryophyta.