Biocrusts: The living skin of the Earth

Plant and Soil
By: , and 



Biological soil crusts (biocrusts) form a “living skin” at the soil surface in many low productivity ecosystems around the world including water- and cold-limited environments, and early successional seres (Belnap et al. 2003). They may be composed of any configuration of soil surface-dwelling cyanobacteria, eukaryotic algae, lichens, mosses or liverworts, and support assemblages of decomposers and a faunal food web (Belnap et al. 2003). These soil surface communities have global relevance, as it has been recently estimated that they cover about 12% of the terrestrial surface currently (Rodriguez-Caballero et al. 2018). Biocrust communities are perhaps an ideal subject for the journal Plant and Soil, because they are simultaneously plant-like, due to their dominance by autotrophs, yet biocrusts are also clearly a physical feature of the soil given that component organisms are enmeshed in, adherent to, or otherwise in direct contact with the soil surface. The activity of the organisms is what engineers the well-aggregated thin layer at the soil surface that we recognize as a biocrust (Belnap et al. 2003). The contributions of biocrusts to ecosystem function has fueled much research interest, initially in the observation of biocrusts’ soil aggregating and erosion-resisting nature, and later as a multifunctional, globally-relevant ecosystem element instrumental in: 1. building or otherwise altering soil nutrient stocks through N-fixation (Elbert et al. 2012), dust trapping (Reynolds et al. 2001) and nutrient cycling (Strauss et al. 2012), 2. influencing hydrological properties of soil such as the water balance (Chamizo et al. 2016), and 3. The thermal energy balance of the ecosystem (Coradeau et al. 2016, Rutherford et al. 2017).

Additional publication details

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Biocrusts: The living skin of the Earth
Series title Plant and Soil
DOI 10.1007/s11104-018-3735-1
Volume 429
Issue 1-2
Year Published 2018
Language English
Publisher Springer
Contributing office(s) Southwest Biological Science Center
Description 7 p.
First page 1
Last page 7