News & Updates

How to identify living biological crust (cryptobiological crust)

Guest - April 28, 2015

Zion National Park, Utah: Wildflowers are blooming, cactus and other plants dot the hillsides and cliffs, and everything from bighorn sheep down to chipmunks find food and shelter in Zion. It is amazing how full of life the desert is when you think about how harsh the climate can be in the southwestern United States. A valuable resource that allows the desert to sustain life is living biological crust, also known as cryptobiotic crust. See the picture below, the yellow cylinder is a tube of cap stick for perspective


Living biological crust (LBC) is a combination of lichens, moss, photosynthetic bacteria, and fungi. Plant life relies on this LBC as a source of nutrients (it fixes the nitrogen and carbon in the soil) in the nutrient deficient soil, it helps keep the ground from eroding after a rain storm and traps the water in which feeds the thirsty plants. All too often people crush LBC due simply not knowing its value or how to properly identify it. Below our some pictures from Arches National Park to help you see LBC’s different phases.


Young crust

·      Very hard to see when it is first developing.

·      The living organisms take long time to develop.


Immature crust

·      After about 5 years color and texture starts to appear.

·      The soil starts to bind together.


Mature crust

·      The crust is now able to be a base for plants in the desert.

·      Lichens in the crust help improve nitrogen in the soil.

·      Moses help hold moisture in the crust.

·      Erosion is prevented thanks to the crust.

When you are out hiking in the desert remember to avoid crushing this valuable resource.

Trampled living biological crust


Thanks for reading and remember to be like the Center’s mascot Bigfoot and Leave No Trace.

Pat and TJ

Leave No Trace’s Patrick and Theresa Beezley are part of the 2015 Subaru/Leave No Trace Traveling Trainer Program that provides free, mobile education to communities across the country. Proud partners of this program include Subaru of America, Deuter, Hi-Cone, REI, Smartwool, The North Face, and Yakima.

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