Biological soil crusts (biocrusts) as a model system in community, landscape and ecosystem ecology

Matthew A. Bowker, Fernando T. Maestre, David Eldridge, Jayne Belnap, Andrea Castillo-Monroy, Cristina Escolar, Santiago Soliveres

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

96 Scopus citations


Model systems have had a profound influence on the development of ecological theory and general principles. Compared to alternatives, the most effective models share some combination of the following characteristics: simpler, smaller, faster, general, idiosyncratic or manipulable. We argue that biological soil crusts (biocrusts) have unique combinations of these features that should be more widely exploited in community, landscape and ecosystem ecology. In community ecology, biocrusts are elucidating the importance of biodiversity and spatial pattern for maintaining ecosystem multifunctionality due to their manipulability in experiments. Due to idiosyncrasies in their modes of facilitation and competition, biocrusts have led to new models on the interplay between environmental stress and biotic interactions and on the maintenance of biodiversity by competitive processes. Biocrusts are perhaps one of the best examples of micro-landscapes-real landscapes that are small in size. Although they exhibit varying patch heterogeneity, aggregation, connectivity and fragmentation, like macro-landscapes, they are also compatible with well-replicated experiments (unlike macro-landscapes). In ecosystem ecology, a number of studies are imposing small-scale, low cost manipulations of global change or state factors in biocrust micro-landscapes. The versatility of biocrusts to inform such disparate lines of inquiry suggests that they are an especially useful model system that can enable researchers to see ecological principles more clearly and quickly.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1619-1637
Number of pages19
JournalBiodiversity and Conservation
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jun 2014


  • Biodiversity
  • Biological soil crusts
  • Ecosystem function
  • Global change
  • Landscape heterogeneity
  • Micro-landscape
  • Model system
  • Species interactions

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation


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