biocrust ecology

Biocrust Ecology with Brianne Palmer

This show provides insights into biocrusts in deserts and drylands with my guest Brianne Palmer. Biocrusts are a global phenomenon and have been called the “living skin of the earth” and one can find them on every single continent. Yes, even Anarctica.

I originally reached out to Brianne because I read an Opinion Article that appeared in Restoration Ecology. It was first published in late September 2019 and it is titled “Restoration ecology: the study of applied optimism.” That thought piece resonated with me, and we recorded a short segment about that that concept that will appear in a later episode. As I learned more about Brianne and her research, I invited her to discuss her passion for biocrusts.

Biocrusts are a suite of organisms, communities of nonvascular autotrophs and heterotrophs, composed of any combination of cyanobacteria, algae, lichens, fungi, bryophytes, liverworts, and lichens in direct contact with the soil surface – yet distinct from the soil below the crust.

Brianne is a PhD candidate who grew up visiting the national parks in Utah, where biocrusts dominate the landscape. She always had a soft spot for them. While Brianne was working as a botanist she traveled all over the Intermountain West and saw the diversity of the biocrusts and the functions they provided to the ecosystem. Brianne began thinking about what would happen if they were gone and if we could use them as a tool to restore at-risk plant communities. Soon after, she started her PhD in the San Diego State University/UC Davis joint program in ecology and study how biocrusts and their associated plant communities recover from grassland fires.

Some biocrusts are fairly fragile, but all are critically important where they are found

  • Don’t like dust? Pretty much no one. Biocrusts in place stabilizes soils.

  • They also influence nutrient cycling. Some biocrusts fix atmospheric nitrogen that in turn is made available to vascular plants. They conserve moisture of soils, affecting runoff and infiltration of precipitation.

Before we get into Brianne’s relentless flow about biocrusts, I want you to know how utterly impressed I am with the interdisciplinary nature of biocrust ecology. The restoration of biocrusts is essential to stemming desertification worldwide. And people are stepping up to increase our collective knowledge about their role in ecosystem’s worldwide. These types of ecosystems are pretty foreign to me, so I learned quite a bit from Brianne about

  • her research and work in the Intermountain West and San Clemente Island

  • where to find biocrusts and what can harm them

  • the services and functions biocrusts provide to the ecosystem

  • the state of knowledge about biocrusts and where active research is taking place

  • how to re-create biocrusts in the lab, nursery and cultivate them in the field

  • and much more


To follow Brianne’s work and wanderings, you can track her on Twitter @briecology. Then, the website she named is Again, her essay on applied optimism can be found in the Restoration Ecology journal.

If you all are interested in this topic and science and conservation in and enjoyment of arid lands, Brianne suggested to me a radio show out of Moab, UT. It is called “Science Moab” and it is hosted by Kristina Young. It plays on radio station KZMU down there and easily findable on a few other podcast channels. You should check it out. There is an episode titled “Salvaging the Living Soil” that focuses in on biocrusts and much more.

Remember Don’t Bust The Crust.