Small microorganisms called cyanobacteria, which are from the same family as blue-green algae, actually live on the surface of bare soil in the desert. For most of the Mojave Desert, the soil is usually characterized by rough dark patches as shown in the photo, but these cyanobacteria, with the aid of different types of lichens, mosses, and other colonies of microorganisms, can sometimes produce colorful soil crusts. In both cases, the soils are called cryptobiotic crust.
Cryptobiotic crust is very important to the health of the desert—a great sign that barren land is actually growing and thriving. In fact, cryptobiotic crust helps produce nutrients and organic material that are recycled back into the soil, and this supports vegetation in the desert. This is great news for all the desert animals, like desert tortoises, that feast on plants as their main source of nutrition. The organic structure of cryptobiotic soil can also help native seeds to germinate (sprout), again an important feature for plant eaters like desert tortoises.
It takes a very long time for cryptobiotic soil to form, and it is also very sensitive to changes in its environment, so when it is disturbed, it does not have an easy time recovering. Some estimates indicate that it takes 250 years for damaged desert habitat to recover! When people use the desert for recreation, they have the opportunity to see and experience some of the most amazing scenery in the world. But if they are not careful, or they purposefully hike or drive off designated trails, cryptobiotic soil can be devastated.
When you step on cryptobiotic soil or drive over it, you kill millions of organisms that support the plant life that desert tortoises eat. If the soil is destroyed, then plants cannot grow, and tortoises will have nothing to eat. So if you know anyone who drives or hikes off trail and they tell you it’s okay because they are always careful not to run over tortoises or their burrows, you can now tell them it’s not okay because they are destroying cryptobiotic soils that allow plants to grow to feed the tortoises that they are being so careful to avoid!
As you can see, cryptobiotic soil is very important to the Mojave Desert ecosystem, and we should make every effort to avoid walking on or touching the soil. The next time you are out on a desert hike or driving down an old desert road, please stay on the designated routes to avoid harming the living soil below you.
Daniel Essary is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center in Las Vegas. Read his previous post, A Desert Tortoise Isn’t Just Any Old Tortoise.
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