Syntrichia caninervis Mitt. is the dominant species in the moss crusts of the Gurbantunggut Desert, Northwestern China. We experimented with this species under controlled environmental conditions. Modulated chlorophyll (Chl) fluorescence was used to test the speed of recovery as evidenced by the time course of photosynthetic activity following remoistening. Transmission electron microscopy was used to explore the cytological characteristics of the leaf cells. Minimum and maximum fluorescence (F0 and FM) and photosynthetic yield (FV/FM) of photosystem II (PSII) recovered quickly when shoots were remoistened in the dark. This was especially the case of FV/FM; within the first minute of remoistening this reached 90 % or more of the value attained after 30 min. These physiological changes were closely paralleled by cytological changes that indicated no damage to membranes or organelles. Correlation analysis showed that Chl fluorescence decreased both above and below a narrow moisture optimum. Our results underline the capability of S. caninervis to photosynthesize after remoistening. Utilizing precipitation events such as dew, fog, rain, and melting snow allows S. caninervis to survive and grow in a harsh desert environment.