Canyonlands Research Bibliography


Biological soil crusts in deserts: a short review of their role in soil fertility, stabilization, and water relations


Jayne Belnap

Document Type


Journal/Book Title/Conference

Algological Studies





First Page



E. Schweizerbart'sche Verlagsbuchhandlung

Last Page


Publication Date



Cyanobacteria and cyanolichens dominate most desert soil surfaces as the major component of biological soil crusts (BSC). BSCs contribute to soil fertility in many ways. BSC can increase weathering of parent materials by up to 100 times. Soil surface biota are often sticky, and help retain dust falling on the soil surface; this dust provides many plant-essential nutrients including N, P, K, Mg, Na, Mn, Cu, and Fe. BSCs also provide roughened soil surfaces that slow water runoff and aid in retaining seeds and organic matter. They provide inputs of newly-fixed carbon and nitrogen to soils. They are essential in stabilizing soil surfaces by linking soil particles together with filamentous sheaths, enabling soils to resist both water and wind erosion. These same sheaths are important in keeping soil nutrients from becoming bound into plant-unavailable forms. Experimental disturbances applied in US deserts show soil surface impacts decrease N and C inputs from soil biota by up to 100%. The ability to hold aeolian deposits in place is compromised, and underlying soils are exposed to erosion. While most undisturbed sites show little sediment production, disturbance by vehicles or livestock produces up to 36 times more sediment production, with soil movement initiated at wind velocities well below commonly-occurring wind speeds. Winds across disturbed areas can quickly remove this material from the soil surface, thereby potentially removing much of current and future soil fertility. Thus, reduction in the cover of cyanophytes in desert soils can both reduce fertility inputs and accelerate fertility losses.


This article may be accessed here.

The publisher retains the copyright to this work and may require a subscription to access the published version.

Please use publisher's recommended citation.

This document is currently not available here.