In contrast to the preceding two this group includes a very large number of genera and species. Thus even in Britain between five and six hundred species belonging to more than one hundred genera are found. They occur in the most varied situations, on soil, on rocks and trees, and, in a few instances (Fontinalis), in water. Although exhibiting a wide range in size and in the structural complexity of both generations, they all conform to a general type, so that Funaria, described above, will serve as a fair example of the group. The protonema is usually filamentous, and in some of the simplest forms is long-lived, while the small plants borne on it serve mainly to protect the sexual organs and sporogonia. This is the case in Ephemerum, which grows on the damp soil of clayey fields, and the plants are even more simply constructed in Buxbaumia, which occurs on soil rich in humus and is possibly partially saprophytic. In this moss the filamentous protonema is capable of assimilation, but the leaves of the small plants are destitute of chlorophyll, so that they are dependent on the protonema. The male plant has no definite stem, and consists of a single concave leaf protecting the antheridium.
The female plant is rather more highly organized, consisting of a short stem bearing a few leaves around the group of archegonia. The sporogonium is of large size and highly organized, though it presents peculiar features in the peristome. Buxbaumia has been regarded by Goebel as representing a stage which other mosses have passed, and has been described by him as the simplest type of moss. In Ephemerum also we may probably regard the relation of the small plants to the protonema as a primitive one. On the other hand, in the case of Ephemeropsis, which grows on the leaves of living plants in Java, the high organization of the sporogonium makes it probable that the persistent protonema is an adaptation to the peculiar conditions of life. A highly developed protonema provided with leaf-like assimilating organs is found in Georgia, Diphyscium and Oedipodium, all of which show peculiarities in the sporogonium as well. The cells of the protonema of Schistostega, which lives in the shade of caves, are so constructed as to concentrate the feeble available light on the chloroplasts.
We may perhaps regard the persistent protonema bearing small leafy plants as a primitive condition, and look upon those larger plants which remain unbranched and bear the sexual organs at the apex (e.g. Schistostega) as representing the next stage. From this condition different lines of specialization in the form and structure of the plant can be recognized. A large number of mosses stand at about the same grade as Funaria, in that the plants are small, sparingly branched, usually radial, and do not show a very highly differentiated internal structure. In others the form of the plant becomes more complex by copious branching and the differentiation of shoots of different orders. In these cases the shoot system is often more or less dorsiventral, and the sexual organs are borne on short lateral branches (e.g. Thuidium tamariscinum). The Polytrichaceae, on the other hand, show a specialization in structure rather than in form. The high organization of their conducting system has been referred to above, but though many species are able to exist in relatively dry situations, the plants are still dependent on the absorption of water by the general surface.
The parallel lamellae of assimilating cells which grow from the upper surface of the leaf in these and some other mosses probably serve to retain water in the neighbourhood of the assimilating cells and so prolong their activity. As common adaptive features in the leaves the occurrence of papillae or outgrowths of the cell-walls to retain water, and the white hairlike leaf tips, which assist in protecting the young parts at the apex of many xerophytic mosses, may be mentioned. The leaves of Leucobryum, which occurs in pale green tufts in shaded woods, show a parallel adaptation to that found in Sphagnum. They are several cells thick, and the small assimilating cells lie between two layers of empty water-storage cells, the walls of which are perforated by pores.
With the possible exception of Archidium, the sporogonium is throughout the Bryales constructed on one plan. Archidium is a small moss occurring occasionally on the soil of wet fields. The protonema is not persistent, and the plants are well developed, resembling those of Pleuridium. The sporogonium has a small foot and practically no seta, and differs in the development and structure of its capsule from all other mosses. The spores are derived from the endothecium, but no distinction of a sterile columella and an archesporium is established in this, a variable number of its cells becoming spore-mother-cells while the rest serve to nourish the spores. The layer of cells immediately around the endothecium becomes the spore-sac, and an air-space forms between this and the wall of the capsule. The very large, thin-walled spores escape on the decay of the capsule, which ruptures the archegonial wall irregularly. On account of the absence of a columella Archidium is sometimes placed in a distinct group, but since its peculiarities have possibly arisen by reduction it seems at present best retained among the Bryales. In all other Bryales there is a definite columella extending from the base to the apex of the capsule, the archesporium is derived from the outermost layer of cells of the endothecium, and an air space is formed between the spore-sac and the wall.
In the Polytrichaceae another air space separates the spore-sac from the columella. There is great variety in the length of the seta, which is sometimes practically absent. The apophysis, which may be a more or less distinct region, usually bears stomata and is the main organ of assimilation. In the Splachnaceae it is expanded for this purpose, while in Oedipodium it constitutes most of the long pale stalk which supports the capsule. A distinct operculum is usually detached by the help of the annulus, and its removal may leave the mouth of the capsule widely open. More usually there is a peristome, consisting of one or two series of teeth, which serves to narrow the opening and in various ways to ensure the gradual shedding of the spores in dry weather. In most mosses the teeth are portions of thickened cell-walls but in the Polytrichaceae they are formed of a number of sclerenchymatous cells. In Polytrichum a membranous epiphragm stretches across the wide mouth of the capsule between the tips of the short peristome teeth, and closes the opening except for the interspaces of the peristome.