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Biological soil crusts: Diminutive communities of potential global importance

June 19, 2017

Biological soil crusts (biocrusts) are widespread, diverse communities of cyanobacteria, fungi, lichens, and mosses living on soil surfaces, primarily in drylands. Biocrusts can locally govern primary production, soil fertility, hydrology, and surface energy balance, with considerable variation in these functions across alternate community states. Further, these communities have been implicated in Earth system functioning via potential influences on global biogeochemistry and climate. Biocrusts are easily destroyed by disturbances and appear to be exceptionally vulnerable to warming temperatures and altered precipitation inputs, signaling possible losses of dryland functions with global change. Despite these concerns, we lack sufficient spatiotemporal data on biocrust function, cover, and community structure to confidently assess their ecological roles across the extensive dryland biome. Here, we present the case for cross-scale research and restoration efforts coupled with remote-sensing and modeling approaches that improve our collective understanding of biocrust responses to global change and the ecological roles of these diminutive communities at global scales.