Red List habitat classification > RLF - Heathland and scrub > RLF1.2 Moss and lichen tundra

Moss and lichen tundra

Quick facts

Red List habitat type code RLF1.2
Threat status
Europe Least Concern
EU -
Relation to
Source European Red List habitat factsheet
European Red List of habitats reports
European Red List of habitats (Excel table)


Moss and lichen tundra is a naturally treeless habitat restricted to areas with permafrost and characterized by a relatively thick and dense cover of mosses. Mean annual temperatures range from -7 to -1 °C. More important for the growing period of vegetation, which only starts in early summer, are the mean July temperatures, ranging from 2-3 °C in the north to 4-6 °C in the middle-arctic zone. Average annual precipitation is between 200 and 800 mm.

In Northern Europe, the habitat type is typically found in the lowlands and along the coast on acidic to neutral Mesozoic and Paleozoic bedrock (Svalbard, Bjørnøya) with Tomentypnum nitens and Warnstorfia sarmentosa as dominating species, while Racomitrium lanuginosum dominates on neutral to alkaline younger volcanic rocks (Jan Mayen, Iceland). The relief varies considerably. More eastwards in northern Russia the habitat occurs mainly in a flat or slightly hilly landscape. Permafrost leads to micro-patterns with slightly different relief within the habitat.

Characteristic vascular plants in Moss and lichen tundra are the dwarf shrubs Dryas octopetala and Cassiope tetragona, and Salix herbacea and S. polaris (in respectively neutral to alkaline and acidic snowbed-like, moist-soils), the sedges Carex rupestris, C. nardina, C. misandra, and Luzula arctica (on neutral to alkaline soils), as well as Luzula confusa (on acidic soils) and Saxifraga oppositifolia. While the vascular flora of the arctic region is relatively species poor, high numbers of lichens, mosses and fungi may be found. The species composition varies with changes in bedrock (alkaline - acidic), soil type (rocky to mesic), snow-cover and exposition.

On Svalbard four main types of Moss tundra may be distinguished: (1) Wet Moss tundra on calcareous bedrock, dominated by Tomentypnum nitens. (2) Dry Moss Tundra on calcareous soils with dominance of Dicranum angustum, (3) acidic Moss tundra with Polytrichum strictum, and (4) Wet Moss tundra on acidic bedrock dominated by Sphagnum squarrosum. Typical lichens of this tundra habitat are Cetrariella delisei (dominant on stony sites), Cladonia mitis, Cetraria nivalis and Sphaerophorus globosus (on acidic substrates). On Iceland, in the subarctic region, species-poor Racomitrium lanuginosum dominated habitats occur on relatively old lava. Such habitats are locally called ‘moss heath’ but are included here in ‘Moss and lichen tundra’. Vascular plants in these moss fields are heathland species, like Carex bigelowii or Empetrum hermaphroditum. The arctic island Jan Mayen is largely dominated by moss beds of Racomitrium lanuginosum and R. canescens, while – less frequently – also R. fasciculare occurs in this habitat. Here, very few plants are able to germinate in this moss tundra, that is only more open in places where it has been eroded, like on steep slopes. The habitat is found on dry slopes, but also on more foggy slopes.

Transitions occur towards more sparsely vegetated polar deserts (habitat H5.1b) in dry areas, tundra mires (habitat D4.2 with Deschampsia alpina, Carex stans and Eriophorum scheuchzeri) in wet locations, snow beds (habitat E4.1 and F2.1) in hollows and depressions with long lasting snow cover (dominated by Poa alpina and Salix reticulata), sparsely-vegetated stony riverbeds in valleys (habitat C3.5d), communities with different Potentilla species on screes (habitat H2.1 and H2.2), and shrub tundra with heathland species (F1.1) on Iceland.

Moss and lichen tundra is a circumpolar habitat type within the arctic regions of Russia, Canada, Alaska and Greenland. In the EU28+, the middle and northern arctic zone is limited to the Svalbard archipelago and to the islands of Jan Mayen and Bjørnøya. On Svalbard it is limited to a relatively small percentage of the total area, as the largest part is covered by glaciers or polar desert (type H5.1b). Additionally the habitat covers parts of Iceland, in the subarctic region. In addition to permafrost, moss tundra on Svalbard depends on the natural fertilizers birds and Svalbard reindeer. The typical Moss tundra can be found under bird cliffs but it is common in all parts of the north-arctic tundra zone on Svalbard.

Indicators of quality:

In good conditions the habitat shows the following characteristics:

  • Very low cover of (dwarf) shrubs,

  • Diversity of microhabitats due to frost patterns (polygons) and cryoturbation

  • High diversity in mosses and lichens

  • Absence of human disturbance

Characteristic species
For full habitat description, please download the habitat factsheet.

Threat status

Synthesis of Red List assessment

Based on few quantitative data in combination with expert knowledge, the habitat 'Moss and lichen tundra' is assumed not to meet any threshold of the criteria of the Red List, resulting in an overall assessment of Least Concern (LC). Many of the subcriteria are indicated as 'Data Deficient'.
Red List Category Red List Criteria
- -
Red List Category Red List Criteria
Least Concern -

Confidence in the assessment

Red List of habitat categories and criteria descriptions

Pressures and threats

  • Climate change
    • Changes in abiotic conditions
    • Temperature changes (e.g. rise of temperature & extremes)
    • Changes in biotic conditions
    • Habitat shifting and alteration
  • No threats or pressures
    • No threats or pressures

Habitat restoration potential

This is one of the most stable and still natural habitats in Europe. As arctic processes occur very slow, the time for recovery after destruction is extremely long.

Trends in extent

Average current trend in quantity

No occurrence Stable
EU28 EU28+

Trends in quality

Average current trend in quality

No occurrence Stable
EU28 EU28+

Conservation and management needs

No measures needed at the moment. If there will be changes because of changing climate, it is hard to do anything.

List of conservation and management needs

  • No measures
    • No measures needed for the conservation of the habitat/species


For each habitat a distribution map was produced from a wide variety of sources indicating known and potential occurrences of the habitat in 10x10 km grids within Europe. Occurrences in grid cells were given in two classes: actual distribution from relatively reliable sources (surveys, expert knowledge), and potential distribution based on models or less reliable indicators. Please download the fact sheet to see the map.

Geographic occurrence and trends

EU28 Present or presence uncertain Current area of habitat (Km2) Recent trend in quantity (last 50 years) Recent trend in quality (last 50 years)
EU28 + Present or presence uncertain Current area of habitat (Km2) Recent trend in quantity (last 50 years) Recent trend in quality (last 50 years)
Svalbard Present 740 Stable Stable
Jan Mayen Present 740 Stable Stable
Iceland Present unknown Unknown Unknown

Extent of Occurrence, Area of Occupancy and habitat area

Extent of Occurrence (EOO) (Km2) Area of Occupancy (AOO) Current estimated Total Area Comment
EU28 - - - Not occur in EU28, only at Svalbard and Jan Mayen
EU28+ 1171700 >740 The EOO is less than 50000 km2 but there are no decline
AOO = the area occupied by a habitat measured in number of 10x10 km grid cells.
EOO = the area (km2) of the envelope around all occurrences of a habitat (calculated by a minimum convex polygon).

Characteristic species

Not available

Vegetation types

Relation to vegetation types (syntaxa)

Not available

Other classifications

Not available
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