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.
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.
US Department of Interior. 2001. Biological Soil Crusts: Ecology and Management. Bureau of Land Management Technical Reference 1730-2., https://www.blm.gov/nstc/library/pdf/CrustManual.pdf
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., https://www.soilcrust.org/