Boreal forest bryophyte communities are made up of distinct colonies of feathermosses that cover the forest floor. In some black spruce (Picea mariana (Mill.) BSP) boreal forests, Sphagnum spp. establish colonies on the forest floor 30-40 years after the feathermosses, and ultimately expand to dominate the community. The mechanisms that permit the Sphagnum spp. to establish and expand are unknown. The objectives of this study were to examine the establishment and expansion substrates of Sphagnum spp., and the conditions correlated with colony expansion. Forty colonies, in six stands, of Sphagnum capillifolium (Ehrh.) Hedw. were dissected to determine their substrates, and the environmental conditions in which all colonies present were growing were measured. Coarse woody debris was the dominant establishment and early expansion substrate for Sphagnum capillifolium colonies. With age as the control factor, large colonies showed a significant partial correlation with canopy openness, and there were fewer individuals per cm(3) in large colonies than there were in small colonies. These results suggest that Sphagnum establishment in these communities is dependent on the presence of coarse woody debris, and expansion is linked to the stand break-up, which would allow an increase in light intensity, and rainfall to reach the colony. Consequently the community change represented by Sphagnum establishment and expansion is initially governed by a stochastic process and ultimately by habitat availability and species competition.