Bryophytes blanket the floor of temperate rainforests in New Zealand and may influence a number of important ecosystem processes, including carbon cycling. Their contribution to forest floor carbon exchange was determined in a mature, undisturbed podocarp-broadleaved forest in New Zealand, dominated by 100–400-year-old rimu (Dacrydium cupressimum) trees. Eight species of mosses and 13 species of liverworts contributed to the 62% cover of the diverse forest floor community. The bryophyte community developed a relatively thin (depth <30 mm), but dense, canopy that experienced elevated CO2 partial pressures (median 46.6 Pa immediately below the bryophyte canopy) relative to the surrounding air (median 37.6 Pa at 100 mm above the canopy). Light-saturated rates of net CO2 exchange from 14 microcosms collected from the forest floor were highly variable; the maximum rate of net uptake (bryophyte photosynthesis – whole-plant respiration) per unit ground area at saturating irradiance was 1.9 μmol m−2 s−1 and in one microcosm, the net rate of CO2 exchange was negative (respiration). CO2 exchange for all microcosms was strongly dependent on water content. The average water content in the microcosms ranged from 1375% when fully saturated to 250% when air-dried. Reduction in water content across this range resulted in an average decrease of 85% in net CO2 uptake per unit ground area.
The results from the microcosms were used in a model to estimate annual carbon exchange for the forest floor. This model incorporated hourly variability in average irradiance reaching the forest floor, water content of the bryophyte layer, and air and soil temperature. The annual net carbon uptake by forest floor bryophytes was 103 g m−2, compared to annual carbon efflux from the forest floor (bryophyte and soil respiration) of −1010 g m−2. To put this in perspective of the magnitude of the components of CO2 exchange for the forest floor, the bryophyte layer reclaimed an amount of CO2 equivalent to only about 10% of forest floor respiration (bryophyte plus soil) or ∼11% of soil respiration. The contribution of forest floor bryophytes to productivity in this temperate rainforest was much smaller than in boreal forests, possibly because of differences in species composition and environmental limitations to photosynthesis. Because of their close dependence on water table depth, the contribution of the bryophyte community to ecosystem CO2 exchange may be highly responsive to rapid changes in climate.