Cryptobiotic Soil Crusts

Audio:  mp3

Cryptobiotic Soil Crust
Photo Courtesy & Copyright 2009
Mark Larese-Casanova

Hi, this is Mark Larese-Casanova from the Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.

Looking out over a Utah desert, we might see relatively few plants- perhaps some sagebrush, maybe a few junipers or Joshua trees, or even some small wildflowers or cacti. What is less noticeable, though, is the living soil crust that holds this entire landscape together. It’s not just sand, but rather an important and vast partnership between bacteria, lichens, algae, and fungi. These soil crusts are often referred to as ‘cryptobiotic’, which means ‘living in suspended animation’. This is a fitting description, considering that water can be so rare in Utah’s deserts.

Cyanobacteria, which is often called blue-green algae, is the backbone of cryptobiotic soil crust. Vast networks of long, microscopic filaments of cyanobacteria and fungi grow in length when they are wet, and leave behind a casing that literally binds the soil together. So, what might otherwise be loose sand not only is less likely to be washed away by water or blown away by wind, but also is able to hold much more water for plants.

Cryptobiotic Soil Crust
Photo Courtesy & Copyright 2009
Mark Larese-Casanova

Cyanobacteria is also extremely useful to desert landscapes for its ability to take Nitrogen out of the air and make it available to plant roots in the soil. Desert soils typically have relatively low nutrients, so this is especially important to desert plants.

In many Utah deserts, cryptobiotic soil crusts can cover up to 70% of the ground surface. Old soil crust can often look like small mountain ranges with black or white peaks inhabited by lichens or mosses. The little valleys in between the tiny mountains of crust are perfect spots for the seeds of desert plants to grow. Over time, the above ground crust can grow up to ten centimeters, or four inches, thick!

However, cryptobiotic soil crust grows at an alarmingly slow rate of about one millimeter per year. So, any soil crust that is disturbed can take a very long time to recover. Depending on the amount of moisture a desert receives, it can take anywhere between 20 and 250 years for soil crust to grow back.

Next time you’re out in the desert, kneel down and have a close look at the telltale peaks and valleys of cryptobiotic soil crust. If you bring a magnifying glass, you just might be able to see some of the lichens and mosses. Be sure to stay on trail, though, and whatever you do, don’t bust that crust!

For Wild About Utah, I’m Mark Larese-Casanova.


Images: Courtesy and copyright Mark Larese-Casanova
Text:     Mark Larese-Casanova, Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.
Additional Reading:

US Department of Interior. 2001. Biological Soil Crusts: Ecology and Management. Bureau of Land Management Technical Reference 1730-2.,
Rosentreter, R., M. Bowker, and J. Belnap. 2007. A Field Guide to Biological Soil Crusts of Western U.S. Drylands. U.S. Government Printing Office, Denver, Colorado.,

It’s Miller Time – Miller Moths

Audio:  mp3

Miller Moth Adult, Courtesy, Whitney Cranshaw, Photographer

Miller Moth/Army Cutworm Adult
Euxoa auxiliaris
Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University, Photographer

Miller Moth Adult, Courtesy, Whitney Cranshaw, PhotographerMiller Moth/Army Cutworm Adult
Euxoa auxiliaris
Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University, Photographer

Miller Moth Adult, Courtesy, Frank Peairs, PhotographerMiller Moth/Army Cutworm Larva(e)
Euxoa auxiliaris
Frank Peairs, Colorado State University, Photographer

Hi, I’m Holly Strand from the Quinney College of Natural Resources at Utah State University.

World Cup Colombian soccer player James Rodriguez isn’t the only one with a flying insect problem. For several weeks many Utahns have been coping with a bumper crop of miller moths. These dusty gray nuisances have been mobbing our lights, dive bombing our heads and plopping into our nightstand water glasses. Miller moth annoyance levels seemed highest along the Wasatch Front but other areas experienced high numbers as well.

Miller moths begin their lives as army cutworms. The larvae eat their way through the winter chomping on winter wheat, alfalfa, and many other types of crops and plants. After eating all winter, the army cutworms burrow into the ground to pupate. They emerge six weeks later with a yen for flower nectar. This sets them migrating to the alpine elevations of the Wasatch and Uinta Mountains. However, flowery trees and gardens along the Wasatch front are powerful diversions; thus our yards function as filling stations along the miller moth migration route.

Army cutworm populations soar during relatively warm winters with little snow cover. And that’s what happened this year in the south central counties of Utah. And that’s why we have so many moths now. But to keep this issue in perspective—know that the numbers we see in UT are nothing compared to the annual invasions experienced by populations on the Rocky Mountain front range. In Denver, annual spikes in vehicle crashes, therapist visits and broken light fixtures clearly coincide with the influx of miller moths.

Luckily, the moths are no more than a nuisance – they won’t eat your food or damage clothing or upholstery. And while sometimes it seems as if they are targeting your head, they really aren’t. If they are in your house, it’s because they were seeking shelter from the daytime predators by seeking a dark crack or crevice to crawl into—and then got into your house by mistake.

If you swat these unfortunate moths, they’ll get back at you. They leave a dusty gray, powdery mess. The powdery dust is really the moth’s tiny scales and is what gave the moth its name. For these scales are reminiscent of the dusty flour that covers the clothing of someone who mills grain.

For a clean resolution to the problem, veteran miller moth killers from Colorado suggest you suspend a light bulb over a bucket of soapy water. Moths will flick off the bulb into the water. At our house we catch them with a butterfly net and set them free outside. For I imagine that they will be off to the mountains as quickly as possible after that experience.

In early fall, the moths return to lower elevations to lay their eggs. Enough have died during the summer so we won’t notice them much if at all. But if next winter is also mild, we will be hosting our miller moth friends again.

Thanks to USU biologist Diane Alston for sharing her entomological expertise.

For pictures, sources and tips for living with miller moths, go to

For Wild About Utah, I’m Holly Strand.


Images: Courtesy & Colorado State University Extension, Whitney Cranshaw and Frank Peairs, Photographers
Text: Holly Strand

Sources & Additional Reading

Cranshaw, Whitney. Quick Facts about Miller Moths. Colorado State University Extension, Fort Collins, CO

Cranshaw, Whitney and Frank Peairs, Questions and Answers about Miller Moths Colorado State University Extension

The Cutthroat Trout

Audio:  mp3

Yellowstone Cutthroat
Oncorhynchus clarki bouvieri
Courtesy USDA Forest Service
Bonneville Cutthroat
Oncorhynchus clarki utah
Courtesy species list
Colorado River Cutthroat
Oncorhynchus clarki pleuriticus
Courtesy US BLM Rawlins, WY Office

Utah streams offer excellent year-round fishing opportunities for every level of angler. According to the Department of Natural Resources, Utah’s waters are home to approximately 80 different species of fish, but it is the trout fishing that is the biggest attraction for fishermen. Of the trout species swimming in our rivers and lakes, the cutthroat trout is a local favorite and the only trout native to the state.

The cutthroat trout represents the most diverse trout species in North America. They are a freshwater fish of the Salmonidae family that live in cold, clear streams and lakes across the west. Cutthroat trout are distinguished from other trout species by two red slashes prominently striping the lower jaw after which they are named. All cutthroat trout share a single common ancestor, but historic population isolation gave rise to 14 subspecies, each endemic to their own geographic region and river drainage.

There are four subspecies that exist in Utah. Only three of these are considered native to the state: the Colorado River cutthroat, the Yellowstone cutthroat, and Utah’s state fish, the Bonneville cutthroat. In Utah, the Colorado River cutthroat trout can be found in some of the smaller streams and tributaries of the Green River, the San Juan River, and the Colorado River drainages. Their bright coloration and posterior black spotting distinguish these cutthroats from others.

Pure, native Yellowstone cutthroat trout are present in small numbers in the streams of the North Slope of the Raft River Mountains in northwestern Utah. However, this subspecies is more widely distributed across the state due to extensive stocking. Yellowstone cutthroat trout can be differentiated by larger-sized black spots concentrated near the tail and their gold, gray, and copper tones.

The Bonneville cutthroat trout evolved in the Bonneville Basin of Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, and Nevada. Its primary ancestors were a population of lake dwelling cutthroat trout living in the late-Pleistocene aged Lake Bonneville. The Bonneville cutthroat trout is less vividly colored and has spots that are more sparsely and evenly distributed across the body than other cutthroats. Thought to be extinct in the 1970s, populations of the Bonneville cutthroat trout are now estimated to exist in around 35% of their historic range, including the nearby Weber and Provo Rivers.

Like so many species, the native cutthroat trout of Utah are under significant pressure due to drought, habitat loss, disease, and competition with non-native species. Though only the Colorado River cutthroat is included on the Utah State Sensitive species list, conservation of all of Utah’s native cutthroat populations is a focal point for state wildlife resource managers.

For Wild About Utah, I’m Anna Bengtson of Park City.

Images: Courtesy USDA Forest Service, US Bureau of Land Management & Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.
Text: Anna Bengston

Sources & Additional Reading:

“2014 Utah Fishing Guidebook.” Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, 1 Jan. 2014. Web. 7 July 2014:

“Bonneville Cutthroat Trout.” Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. n.d. Web. 7 July 2014:

“Bonneville Cutthroat Trout.” Native Trout Species. The Western Native Trout Campaign, n.d. Web. 7 July 2014:

“Colorado River Cutthroat Trout.” Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. n.d. Web 7 July 2014:

“Cutthroat Trout.” Colorado Parks and Wildlife, n.d. Web. 7 July 2014:

“Cutthroat Trout.” Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. n.d. Web. 7 July 2014:

“Cutthroat Trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii).” Natural Resources Conservation Service, 1 Jan. 2007. Web. 7 July 2014:

“Cutthroat Trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii) – FactSheet.” Cutthroat Trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii) – FactSheet. U.S Geological Survey, 14 June 2013. Web. 7 July 2014:

“Endangered Species of the Mountain-Prairie Region.” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, n.d. Web. 7 July 2014:

“Fishes.” Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, n.d. Web. 7 July 2014:

“Native Cutthroat of Utah.” Trout Unlimited Blog, 18 Dec. 2012. Web. 7 July 2014:

“Utah’s Native Trout.” Utah Fly Fishing Club, 24 Dec. 2011. Web. 7 July 2014:

“Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout.” Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. n.d. Web. 7 July 2014:
Brown, Dylan. “Shocking habitat projects help increase native Cutthroat populations.” Standard Examiner, 14 May 2014. Web. 7 July 2014:

Chorney, Chad. “For the Love of Cutthroat.” Trout Unlimited Blog, 29 Jan. 2013. Web. 7 July 2014:

Airborne Snapping Grasshoppers

Audio:  mp3

Snapping Grasshopper
Trimerotropis modesta
Courtesy & © 2010
David Bygott, Photographer

Utah has neither snapping turtles nor snapping shrimp, but we do have snapping grasshoppers. Their loud crackling sound punctuates summer hikes along open canyon slopes and rocky mountain ridges. (recording of a snapping grasshopper) Like other band-winged grasshoppers, they are named for the arcs of muted color across their hind wings.

But it is the male’s insistent racket that draws our attention. A snap results when a stout vein of their hind wings is flexed between two positions. That flexure alternately stretches and relaxes the membrane between the veins, something like an umbrella being popped open and then folded. The vein flexure generates an audible snap, like a dog’s training clicker. (recording of dog clicker) The grasshopper’s loopy flight generates a train of snaps. (recording of snapping grasshopper)

Crepitating cicadas have a similar means of sound production. They click from a perch on a plant stem. (recording of cicada) Their clicking has filled the air of northern Utah this summer.

As with cicadas, it is the male band-winged grasshopper that snaps to woo a mate. He displays solitarily during flight, the longer advertisement the better, apparently. Hopefully, an attracted female will meet him in the air. Sadly for the male, most of the time no female responds and he lands unrequited. There the previously conspicuous male seems to silently vanish, so perfectly does his mottled tan camouflage match bare ground. After resting a bit, he launches again to resume his crackling display.

Species of band-winged grasshopper differ in their snapping displays, which a female no doubt appreciates. But for you and I, it is enough to know that we are hearing snapping grasshoppers on a warm day’s hike.

Images: Courtesy © 2010 David Bygott, Photographer,
Audio: Jim Cane, Bridgerland Audubon Society
Text: Jim Cane, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

Otte, Daniel. 1970. A Comparative Study of Communicative Behavior in Grasshoppers.

Miscellaneous Publications Museum of Zoology, University Of Michigan, No. 141

Sandhill Cranes, Utah’s Meadow Dancers

Audio:  mp3

Sandhill Crane Pair
Grus canadensis
Courtesy US FWS,
Justine Belson, Photographer

Hi, this is Mark Larese-Casanova from the Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.

The grace of sandhill cranes draws our attention when we see them in the marshes, meadows, and fields across northern Utah. As one of the tallest birds in the state, the sandhill crane is hard to miss. They’ll glide low over farm fields, with their large slate-grey bodies and red caps making them difficult to mistake with any other bird.

Northern Utah is near the lower end of the sandhill crane’s breeding range, so we’re fortunate to see them. They’ll arrive to Utah beginning in March, and stay for the summer breeding season.

Sandhill cranes develop pair bonds for life, and their choice in mates is influenced by elaborate courtship dances. Crane dances are like awkward avian ballet, with an assortment of bows, flapping wings, and leaps into the air with wings outstretched. At times, sticks or plants are grasped with their long, dagger-like bills and tossed into the air. At up to four feet tall with a wingspan of five feet, the sandhill crane as it dances is quite a sight to see!

Sandhill cranes are often heard before they’re seen. Their loud, rolling trumpets fill the air, even for a couple miles. Males and females call in unison, as a loud duet that helps reinforce their pair bond.

[Sandhill Crane Call Copyright 2006 Kevin Colver,, as found at http://7]

Once a suitable nest location is found on the ground or on shallow water, both the male and female toss plant material over their shoulders to build their large nest. As spring now fades to summer, sandhill cranes can be seen strolling through farm fields with their young colts, encouraging them to feed, and protecting them from predators. While the dance of the sandhill cranes has mostly ended, their elegance hangs in our memory until next year.

Cranes of the Swaner Nature Preserve by Michael Flaherty, Nesting cycle of Sandhills Cranes, Swaner Nature Preserve, Park City, UT

As Aldo Leopold wrote in A Sand County Almanac, “our appreciation of the crane grows with the slow unraveling of earthly history… And so they live and have their being- these cranes- not in the constricted present, but in the wider reaches of… time. A crane marsh holds a paleontological patent of nobility, won in the march of aeons.”

For Wild About Utah, I’m Mark Larese-Casanova.

[End with sandhill crane call again]

Images: YouTube video Courtesy and Copyright Michael Flaherty, Park City. UT
Audio: Copyright Kevin Colver,

Text:     Mark Larese-Casanova, Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.
Additional Reading:

Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Sandhill Crane. All About Birds.

Leopold, A. 1986. A Sand County Almanac. Ballantine Books.

National Wildlife Federation. Sandhill Crane.

Tekiela, S. 2003. Birds of Utah. Adventure Publications, Inc. Cambridge, Minnesota.

Utah Conservation Data Center. Sandhill Crane.

US Geological Survey. Sandhill crane summer distribution map.


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