Fungi are also important. This is a free living fungus that was in a soil sample. I don't study fungi and very few people study the fungal component of these crusts. For some reason, we haven't attracted a mycologist to this field and so even though they are probably very significant components, they are virtually unstudied. The work on microbiotic crusts began about 30 years ago and so there is just a lot that we don't know about them.
What is the Ecological Importance of Crusts?
Okay. So what is the ecological importance of the crusts apart from being really fun to study and really interesting and fascinating organisms living in extreme environments? We don't think of algae as growing in deserts. Why should we study them? What has come out in the past 25 years of study is that many of these crusts have a crucial role to play in desert ecosystems.
Most Crucial Reasons...
I consider the most crucial role to be soil stabilization against the erosive forces of wind and water. This is really critical. Deserts are fragile ecosystems and they erode following disturbance. These crusts are essentially the first defense against erosion. As I said, they are the dominant form of plant cover. In Ohio when we go out to the field the soil is covered with grasses and trees and everything else, and that's what protects the soil. But in arid areas the microbiotic crusts are the things that protect the soil and if you break up those crusts, the soil will move.