A networking resource devoted to biological soil crusts and the researchers who study them. We will provide a means for international scientists to communicate, share their research, share important news and announcements, ask questions and find collaborators. We will also provide a space for informal writing on research, opinion, and ideas (now seeking posters!).

Monday, December 31, 2012

Crust workship abstract deadline extended again

Received by email a few days ago:

Dear colleague,

Just to let you know that the abstract submission period for the II International BSC workshop, which will take place in Madrid between 10 and 13 June 2013, has been extended until the end of January 2013. We have received more than 30 abstracts so far, and encourage you to submit yours to the meeting. Please pass this information to any colleague that
may be interested in attending.

All the updated information on the meeting can be found at its webpage:


We hope to see all of you in Madrid on next year!

With our Best Wishes for 2013,

Fernando T. Maestre
Leopoldo G. Sancho

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Paper by Coe et al. recommended by Faculty of 1000

Faculty of 1000 is a panel of faculty members which recommends and ranks the best papers they have read in their fields, post-publication. It is sort of a post-publication peer review, and in addition to citation rates give an indication of the impact or quality a paper may have.

Scott Collins of University of New Mexico, a heavy hitter in dryland ecology specifically, and also the president of ESA has recommended Coe, K.K., Belnap, J., Sparks, J.P. 2012. Precipitation-driven carbon balance controls survivorship of desert biocrust mosses. Ecology 93: 1626-36. This is really a great honor for the authors, and I am really psyched to see my very first study subject, Syntrichia caninervis, making it big.

Check out my previous post about related work by some of the same authors here. Also CO2 Science summarizes another related work here.

Plate 1.  (Left) A moss-dominated soil biocrust from the Colorado Plateau in western North America, and (right) a single shoot (height 1 cm) of the widespread biocrust moss Syntrichia caninervis. Photo credits: left, K. K. Coe; right, Lloyd Stark.

View the recommendation here:

Collins S: F1000 Prime Recommendation of [Coe KK et al., Ecology 2012, 93(7):1626-36]. Faculty of 1000, 18 Oct 2012; DOI: 10.3410/f.717955503.793460788. f1000.com/prime/717955503#eval793460788

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Roger Rosentreter talk, 2012 Restoring the West Conference, Utah State University

I ran across this on you tube...

Speak to me Lichen, How Stable is the Soil? Tell me its Disturbance History. Roger Rosentreter, State Botanist, BLM Idaho. Recorded talk from 2012 Restoring the West Conference at Utah State University. The conference focused on balancing energy development and biodiversity. By Utah State University Extension Forestry. www.restoringthewest.org

Monday, December 24, 2012

Musgos: Syntrichia caninervis

Nice website in Spanish on the mosses of the Iberian peninsula. Just added it to the resources list.

Musgos: Syntrichia caninervis: Familia: Pottiaceae Como mucho llega a 1.5cm, crece en céspedes más o menos extensos. Hojas patentes en húmedo retorcidos en seco, de ...

Friday, December 21, 2012

IAB blog: IAB 2013 London, UK

IAB blog: IAB 2013 London, UK: --> IAB 2013 London, UK From Jeff Duckett,   Silvia Pressel and Jo Wilbraham We are pleased to announce that the next mee...

Thursday, December 20, 2012

BIOCRUST 2013 (Madrid) Third Circular, get your abstracts in by Dec. 31

Below is the latest on the biocrust meeting in Spain next year. I've been told that over 30 abstracts have been received so far. The deadline was extended to 31 December.  Also the plenary talks are now scheduled, and I'm happy to be doing one of them:

Third circular, 12 December 2012

We are pleased to announce the Second International Workshop on Biological Soil Crust, which follows the successful first Workshop celebrated in Germany in 2010. This workshop is devoted to disseminate recent advances in our knowledge of the ecology of biological soil crusts (BSCs) and their importance as a key driver of ecosystem structure and functioning.

The main objective of this Workshop is to trigger an exchange of ideas and results, to discuss possible new theories/approaches, and to provide a forum to facilitate the collaboration among the growing international community of scientists working with BSCs.

This international meeting will take place at the Faculty of Pharmacy, The Complutense University, Madrid, Spain, between 10th and 13rd of June, 2013. The meeting will cover any aspect related to BSCs, including the following topics:
• Diversity, ecology and biogeography of BSCs
• Mapping, monitoring and management of BSCs
• Role of BSCs in ecosystems
• Taxonomy of BSC constituents
• Disturbance and restoration of BSCs
• Interaction between BSCs and vascular plant vegetation
• Effects of global environmental change on BSCs

The meeting will include invited plenary talks, contributed oral sessions, poster sessions, a field trip and some open, informal sessions to facilitate the exchange of ideas and protocols on key issues surrounding BSC ecology.
The Complutense University (http://portal.ucm.es/en/web/en-ucm) is one of the largest Universities in Spain. Located in the historic Ciudad Universitaria/Moncloa Campus, it is easily accessible from anywhere in Madrid from Metro and Bus. The venue of the meeting (Faculty of Pharmacy) is just 20 m from a metro station.
Scientific committee
Jayne Belnap, United States Geological Service (USA)
Matthew A. Bowker, Northern Arizona University (USA)
Burkhard Büdel, University of Kaiserslautern (Germany)
David Eldridge, University of New South Wales (Australia)
Ferran García-Pichel, Arizona State University (USA)
Fernando T. Maestre, Rey Juan Carlos University (Spain)
Leopoldo G. Sancho, Complutense University (Spain)
Eli Zaady, Ministry of Agriculture (Israel)
Local organizing committee
Beatriz Gozalo, Rey Juan Carlos University
Allan Green, Complutense University
Fernando T. Maestre, Rey Juan Carlos University
José Raggio, Complutense University
Victoria Ochoa, Rey Juan Carlos University
Ana Pintado, Complutense University
Mª Dolores Puche, Rey Juan Carlos University
Leopoldo G. Sancho, Complutense University
10.6. Arrival, registration, workshop sessions (morning and afternoon).

11.6. Workshop sessions (morning and afternoon).

12.6. Field trip to the Guadarrama Mountain Range (8:00 – 16:00 h). Informal discussion 
session in a field station in the mountains (16:00 – 18:00 h). Conference dinner in the Botanical Gardens of the University.

13.6. Workshop sessions (morning), departure after lunch.
Plenary speakers are now confirmed (the title of the talks is tentative):
Dr. Matthew A. Bowker, Assistant Professor, Northern Arizona University. Topic of his talk: “Biological soil crusts as a model system on community and ecosystem ecology”. 

Dr. Burkhard Büdel, Professor, University of Kaiserslautern. Topic of his talk: “Soil Crust InterNational (SCIN) – Understanding and valuing biological soil protection of disturbed and open land surfaces”.

Dr. Steve Pointing, Professor, Auckland University of Technology. Topic of his talk: “Understanding microbial contributions to ecosystem-wide patterns and processes in extreme environments”.

Abstract submission
Abstract submission will be open from 20 September 2012 to 31 December 2012.
Authors are invited to present regular talks, short ideas and/or posters at the meeting. Regular contributions will be talks of 15 minutes + 5 minutes discussion each. Short notes/ideas can be presented in 5 minute talks (+ 3 minutes discussion). Poster sessions will also take place the first two days of the meeting.

For all the contribution types, please submit abstracts by e-mail (to iibscworkshop@gmail.com) using this template and indicate, if you wish to present a regular contribution, a short note or a poster. Please note that the number of slots available for regular and short talks is limited, and we may not be able to accommodate all the requests for talks we may have.
The template for the abstract can be found available in the webpage of the meeting.
Registration and fees
The registration will be open from 1 January 2013 to 30 April 2013.
Conference fees:
240 € regular participants
120 € students

The fees include the documentation, the lunches of three days, the field trip and the conference dinner. Payment of the fees will be done by either credit card or bank transfer, using the registration form available here and in the webpage of the meeting. Once filled in you must submit the form directly by fax or e-mail to the General Foundation UCM (e-mail address and fax number are in the template). Please do not send it to us.
Travel Information
Madrid, the Spanish capital, is a vibrant city with world class museums, monuments, and restaurants, and with a famous night and cultural life. Madrid can be easily reached by plane from anywhere in the world. Flights arrive to Barajas airport, from where the city centre can be reached by metro, train ("Cercanías"), bus or taxi. The best way to arrive to the meeting from the city center is by Metro or bus. A metro map and travel itinerary planner can be found here.

Participants are free to book the accommodation of their choice, as there are plenty of options within Madrid, from cheap hostels to luxury hotels. We are making arrangements with a travel agency, which will offer some hotels at a discounted price for participants. We will update details on how to book through them in the next circular.
For general travelling and tourism information please visit:
http://www.esmadrid.com/en/portal.do (Touristic information on Madrid and schedule of cultural events going out in the city)
http://www.spain.info/en_US/ (General touristic information)
http://www.aena.es/csee/Satellite/Home/en/Page/1166792871783/ (Information on flights going to the Barajas airport, the main airport in Madrid)
Important dates
Abstract submission: Abstract submission will be from 20 September 2012 to 31 December 2012.
Notification of abstract acceptance: 30 January 2013
Registration: 1 January 2013 – 30 April 2013
Workshop: 10 – 13 June 2013
We hope to see you all at Madrid in 2013!
Fernando T. Maestre (fernando.maestre@urjc.es) and Leopoldo G. Sancho (sancholg@farm.ucm.es)

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Evidence of early life on land draws ire from scientists

Evidence of early life on land draws ire from scientists

Ph.D. Student opening in plant-soil interactions under climate change

Hi all,

This project is not biocrust related, but some of the soil ecology fans who come across this blog might have some interest or know someone who might....

The Bowker lab at the School of Forestry (SOF), Northern Arizona University, seeks a motivated Ph.D. student to conduct field and greenhouse experiments near Flagstaff, Arizona starting in Fall 2013. The student will use the newly-established Southwest Experimental Garden Array (SEGA) to determine the role of soil organisms (e.g. mycorrhizal fungi, pathogens, etc.) in speeding or slowing plant migration under climate change. SEGA provides the infrastructure and a rare opportunity to conduct cutting edge global change research. Four years of funding are available to the student (Annual stipend of $19,950, tuition remission, and student health coverage) in addition to modest project costs. The student will be expected to seek additional resources (grants, scholarships, etc.) to help extend the project.
            Objectives: The southern Colorado Plateau is already exhibiting rapid contraction of species distributions as climatic warming shifts the lower elevation and latitudinal limits of plant species that may be faster than expansion of species ranges at the upper elevation and latitudinal limits
Specifically, the objectives of this research are to:
1. Determine whether stress-adapted soil communities can enhance growth and fitness of less stress-adapted plant populations, thereby buffering against die-back.
2. Determine whether the adaptations of soil organisms dictate the success of assisted migration of plant species into cooler climates.
            Within this general framework, the student will be encouraged to develop their own additional research questions.
            Research Environment: The School of Forestry is one of the top Forestry Schools in the nation, and a productive research environment, with faculty members specializing in a variety of ecological topics such as landscape ecology, ecological restoration, plant ecophysiology, entomology, hydrology, and soil ecology among other topics. The candidate will also have opportunities to interact with members of the Soil Ecology lab of Nancy Johnson who will also be involved in the project.
            Preferred Qualifications: Master of Science in Forestry, Biology, Environmental Science or related field, or a Bachelor of Science in these fields supplemented with research experience (undergraduate thesis, capstone or internship, or employment-related experience). Candidates with field research experience will be strongly favored, especially in maintenance and construction of field experiments. Candidates with previous experience in soil ecology and/or climate change experimental manipulations will also be favored. Due to manual labor needs in the experimental setup, physical fitness is required. The candidate must satisfy all requirements set by the School of Forestry, and Northern Arizona University.
Admissions requirements (Deadline March 15, 2013):
  • GPA of 3.0 or greater on a 4.0 scale in all college and university work
  • GRE scores in the top 40th percentile
  • If English is not your native language:
    a score of at least 80 on the internet-based TOEFL or
    550 on the paper-based TOEFL or
    213 on the computer-based TOEFL
  • Three letters of recommendation
How to apply:  First contact me directly (matthew.bowker@nau.edu) to state your research interests, and motivations for attending graduate school, with “SEGA graduate student inquiry” in the header. Please provide a resume or C.V., and provide your GRE scores and GPA. If I agree that you are a good match for the position, I will encourage you to apply to the program.
Useful Links
School of Forestry - http://nau.edu/cefns/forestry/
Southwest Experimental Garden array - http://www4.nau.edu/insidenau/bumps/2011/10_3_11/nsf.html

Saturday, December 15, 2012

(Very) early life on land: Just who is this Dickinsonia character, anyway?

Fig. 1. Dickinsonia (source: uonews.oregon.edu) 

My first impression upon hearing the hypothesis that Dickinsonia (Fig. 1) may be a lichen was that it does not look like any lichen I’ve ever seen. To be fair, the more normal interpretation that it is a marine animal, a segmented worm, sparks the same response…it does not look like any animal I’ve ever seen or heard of. What it actually resembles is a giant diatom, but that is pretty silly. This uncertainty is exactly what has been nagging paleontologists since the 1940’s….what are these things and what later life forms, if any, evolved from them? Dickinsonia and other Ediacaran Period (635-542 mya) fossils are enigmas. They left fossils in multiple locations world wide, then drop out of the fossil record before the Cambrian explosion in a mass extinction. 

I’m no expert on this topic, so I had to do a little looking into the history of Earth. I read Gould’s “It’s a wonderful life” several years ago purely for fun, but that is the extent of my paleontological expertise. It is common in the popular press to equate the Ediacaran time as representative of the beginnings of life. This is not true. Rather it could be the beginnings of animal life or the beginning of clearly complex multicellular life, but the Earth was already quite alive at this point. The major events are the origin of single-celled organisms and their radiation into archaea and bacteria about 3500 mya. The conventional thought is that this all occurred in the oceans, though there are other opinions. Photosynthetic bacteria showed up around this time, and maybe even were on land. Then, came the evolution of the cyanobacteria about 3000 mya which was extremely significant because their brand of photosynthesis produced oxygen as a waste product, and drew down CO2 in the atmosphere. It is plausible that they colonized land, but because they do not often leave convincing fossils on land, this is hard to prove. I would love to have Hugo Beraldi-Campesi weigh in on this, as I am out of my depth on this topic. The oxygen produced by the cyanobacteria immediately began rusting all of the iron in the Earths rocks, until this sink was saturated, i.e., all the surface iron had oxidized. At this point the great oxidation event occurred wherein the atmospheric oxygen started rising (~2500 mya) causing a mass extinction of anaerobic organisms, and also crippling the Earth’s greenhouse effect and causing a “snowball earth” episode of global glaciation, and partially frozen seas. This phenomenon happened a couple more times, possibly linked to other phenomena like super volcanos. After the last snowball Earth episode, a group of fossils called the Ediacaran fauna turn up supposedly inhabiting microbial mats on seafloors....check out the video below.

They are known from multiple locations all over the place suggesting global ubiquity. “Shortly” after, the famously rapid radiation of complex lifeforms (most of which went extinct) occurred in the Cambrian explosion, exemplified by the fauna of the Burgess shale. The Ediacaran animals are not part of this fauna, suggesting an extinction event, and plausibly leaving a bottleneck from which the Cambrian radiation occurred.
            It’s a great story, with holes, but all very reasonable given that the fossil record is always incomplete and many inferences must be made from incomplete data. What if the Ediacarans are not marine animals, and not animals at all? Then the animalian genetic lines that “exploded”, did not come form the Ediacaran…making the Cambrian explosion even more out of nowhere. The interpretation that these are lichens, marine ones (something that does actually exist today), was proposed by Retallack (1996). What if these were terrestrial organisms – including lichens and other fungi- inhabiting soils? That is what this new paper suggests (Retallack 2012). The new bit of information, that will be of great interest to people who read this blog, is the evidence that one key Ediacaran site in Australia (the type locality, actually) is composed of paleosols, not marine sediments (Fig. 2). The evidence is based on the patterns of oxidation, weathering into soil horizons, isotopic signatures, needle ice, carbonate and gypsum accumulations and cracking……..and “elephant skin” which is interpreted as a biocrust. Could there be biocrusts on land at this point, i.e. terrestrial community version 1.0? I think yes, we know cyanobacteria had been around for a very long time, and had all the tools they might need to grow on land (UV protection, desiccation tolerance, N-fixation, C-fixation). That is totally plausible, in fact they could have colonized after other photosynthetic bacteria actually making them terrestrial community version 2.0. As an ecologist, I find it hard to believe that the ocean would be teeming with microbial lifeforms in abundances great enough to overhaul the Earth's atmosphere, but the land surface would be sterile. I can easily believe that biocrusts are ancient. Retallack's (2012) interpretation is that this was a cold dry environment, so i do wonder why the putative fossil biocrusts don't have the high-relief pinnacled structure (up to 10 cm) associated with today's biocrusts in cold climates and sandy soils (e.g. the Colorado Plateau). Could the Ediacaran “fauna” be like the lichen components that colonize todays’ biocrusts? That’s the tougher one to believe. The first unambiguous fossil of a lichen is from the Devonian (Honegger et al. 2012), about the same time that plants radiated and came to dominate the continents.

Retallack's reinterpretation of depositional environment and fossils of the Ediacara Hills, Australia (source: ounews.orgon.edu). 

            It seems like Retallack has amassed multiple lines of evidence of the paleosol interpretation. As others have pointed out (Xiao & Nauth 2012), the weakness in the paleosol interpretation is that it is based on one of many localities. Even if these are paleosols, what about all of the other marine rocks which contain the same fossils, some of which are thought to be deep water formations. Some of them are clearly rippled, suggesting the action of water. Were these Ediacarans terrestrial AND marine organisms, then? It seems to me that for now the Ediacaran enigmas must remain enigmas. I do look forward to a reexamination of other Ediacaran sites, if nothing else this paper makes the Earth’s history just a little more fascinating than it already was (quite). Whether you believe him or not, Gregory Retallack seems like an intriguing scientist with a tendency towards provocative papers. This is how science works...once we get comfortable with a hypothesis, along comes a challenge. The scrutiny will likely lead us closer to the true nature of the Ediacarans, though we may have to wallow in deeper and deeper confusion for a while. As I’ve said multiple times here, this is not my expertise and many more knowledgeable people might come across this blog….. so please do light up the comments section with your impressions of this new paper.

Honegger, R., Edwards, D., Axe, L. 2012. The earliest records of internally stratified cyanobacterial and algal lichens from the lower Devonian of the Welsh borderlands. New Phytologist 197: 264-275

Rettalack, GJ. 1996. Were the Ediacaran fossils lichens? Paleobiology 20: 523-544.

Xiao S, Knauth, LP. 2012. Paleontology: fossils come in to land. Nature doi:10.1038/nature11765

Retallack, G. (2012). Ediacaran life on land Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature11777 ResearchBlogging.org

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Australian multicellular fossils point to life on land, not at sea, geologist proposes

I'm going to have to find the time to write about this in a bit more detail, but here's the press version.

Australian multicellular fossils point to life on land, not at sea, geologist proposes

In a nutshell, this paper interprets the ediacaran fossil marine "animals" as organisms of biological soil crusts. The argument that these famous fossils are terrestrial has been around a long time. I think the new element is evidence that these are paleosols, specifically with evidence of a fossil crust. I don't know if I believe it...but more on this later.

Degraded military lands to get ecological boost from CU-led effort

New crust restoration project, starting next year. We'll be doing our first reconnaissance trip next week.

Degraded military lands to get ecological boost from CU-led effort