The n-alkane distributions from total lipid extracts often modern Sphagnum moss species, collected from a suite of ombrotrophic bogs across Europe, were determined using gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS). n-Alkane distributions are reported for the first time for Sphagnum balticum, S. majus, S. angustifolium and S. lindbergii, which are all dominated by C-23 with the exception of S. lindbergii, which exhibits a bimodal distribution with C-23 and C-31 as the major homologues. The distributions for individual species generally agree with published compositions, confirming the conservative nature of the n-alkane compositions, which provide a basis for differentiating the n-C-23 and n-C-25 dominated species. Investigations of the variation in n-C-23/n-C-25 and n-C-23/n-C-3, ratios of Sphagnum species, using the new and published n-alkane distributions, reveal that intra-species variation is generally minor. Critically, the distributions and ratios for most species do not vary among the sites studied, suggesting that they are conservative tracers for a given species, despite differences in growth conditions. In contrast, inter-species variation exists, allowing differentiation of individual Sphagnum species based on vegetation biomarkers, specifically the C-25 n-alkane in S. fuscum and the n-C-23/n-C-25 ratio. Biomarker stratigraphic analysis of a 150 cm peat core (Kontolanrahka Bog, Finland) reveal shifts in the n-C-23/n-C-25 ratio, which track changes in the abundance of S. fuscum in the macrofossil record. This supports the application of n-alkane biomarkers in peat archives for tracking past shifts in individual Sphagnum species abundance. This will be particularly important where fossil plant remains are highly degraded in, or absent from, peat records. (C) 2009 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.