The defining features of bryophytes are:
Bryophytes exist in a wide variety of habitats. They can be found growing in a range of temperatures (cold arctics and in hot deserts), elevations (sea-level to alpine), and moisture (dry deserts to wet rainforests).
Bryophytes can grow where vascularized plants cannot because they do not depend on roots for an uptake of nutrients from soil. Bryophytes can survive on rocks and bare soil.
Like all land plants (embryophytes), bryophytes have life cycles with alternation of generations. In each cycle, a haploid gametophyte, each of whose cells contains a fixed number of unpaired chromosomes, alternates with a diploid sporophyte, whose cell contain two sets of paired chromosomes. Gametophytes produce haploid sperm and eggs which fuse to form diploid zygotes that grow into sporophytes. Sporophytes produce haploid spores by meiosis, that grow into gametophytes.
Bryophytes are gametophyte dominant, meaning that the more prominent, longer-lived plant is the haploid gametophyte. The diploid sporophytes appear only occasionally and remain attached to and nutritionally dependent on the gametophyte. In bryophytes, the sporophytes are always unbranched and produce a single sporangium (spore producing capsule).
Liverworts, mosses and hornworts spend most of their lives as gametophytes. Gametangia (gamete-producing organs), archegonia and antheridia, are produced on the gametophytes, sometimes at the tips of shoots, in the axils of leaves or hidden under thalli. Some bryophytes, such as the liverwort Marchantia, create elaborate structures to bear the gametangia that are called gametangiophores. Sperm are flagellated and must swim from the antheridia that produce them to archegonia which may be on a different plant. Arthropods can assist in transfer of sperm.
Fertilized eggs become zygotes, which develop into sporophyte embryos inside the archegonia. Mature sporophytes remain attached to the gametophyte. They consist of a stalk called a seta and a single sporangium or capsule. Inside the sporangium, haploid spores are produced by meiosis. These are dispersed, most commonly by wind, and if they land in a suitable environment can develop into a new gametophyte. Thus bryophytes disperse by a combination of swimming sperm and spores, in a manner similar to lycophytes, ferns and other cryptogams.