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Zonas ridas 16(1): 112-119 (2016)

ISSN 1013-445X (Versin impresa)

ISSN 1814-8921 (Versin electrnica)
Centro de Investigaciones de Zonas ridas
Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina, Lima - Per

Scientific note

Biological soil crust in Peru: first record and

Costra biolgica del suelo en el Per: primer reporte y
Csar Arana1,2*, Toms A. Carlo3 & Letty Salinas2,4
Departamento de Ecologa del Museo de Historia Natural de la Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos. Lima. Per

Laboratorio de Ecologa y Biogeografa de la Facultad de Ciencias Biolgicas de la UNMSM. Lima. Per.
Department of Biology, The Pennsylvania State University. USA
Departamento de Ornitologa del Museo de Historia Natural de la UNMSM. Lima, Per.
*Corresponding author. E-mail:

Received: 20 august 2015 Accepted: 9 march 2016

The presence of biological soil crusts in the Andean and coastal regions is reported for the first
time in Peru. Crusts dominated by cyanobacteria, lichens and/or mosses are described from
localities in the coastal desert (Lomas) and in the high Andean region (Puna).
Keywords: Andes, Lomas, Puna, Pacific coastal desert, soil biocrust.

Se reporta por primera vez en el Per la presencia de costras biolgicas del suelo en las regiones
andina (Puna) y costera (Lomas) del pas. Estas costras dominadas por cianobacterias, lquenes
y/o musgos, son descritas de localidades de la costa desrtica (Lomas) y de la regin altoandina
Palabras clave: Andes, Lomas, Puna, desierto costero del Pacfico, biocostra del suelo.

Desert crusts or biological soil crusts (BSC) are key features of earths arid ecosystems
composed of biotic layers of cyanobacte ria, bacteria, algae, fungi, lichens, and bryophytes
that cement the loose soil particles of the desert soil (Belnap & Lange, 2003). BSC occur in
most arid and semi-arid regions of the world where account for a substantial amount (~70%)
of the living cover (Belnap & Lange, 2003). In spite that Peru has about 328,093 km2 of arid
and desert lands (Ministerio del Ambiente, 2012), biological crusts have never been described
or reported from Peruvian deserts except for indirect references of soil lichen communities in
several Andean localities (Ramrez & Cano, 2005) and the called loma de Nostoc in coastal
deserts (Ferreyra, 1953).
Biological soil crust in Peru: first record and description

The lack of information on Peruvian BSCs is an important gap given the key role that desert
crusts play on terrestrial ecosystems such as soil stabilization, erosion control, nutrient fixation,
and as facilitators for the establishment of higher plants in arid environments (Malam et al.,
1999; Belnap et al., 2003; Thomas & Dougill, 2007; Guo et al., 2008). Arid ecosystems along
the Peruvian coast possess a high level of endemism, and thus it is necessary to understand
how the occurrence and functional relationships of Peruvian BSC influence species and
communities of high conservation value. Here we provide the first report and description
of BSC in Peru from localities in the coastal desert (Lomas), and in the high Andean region

Structure and function of Biological Soil Crusts (BSC)

BSC develop on the open ground surfaces of arid environments and play an important
role in sustaining life in the worlds driest terrestrial ecosystems (Concostrina-Zubiri et al.,
2013). BSC result from an intimate association between soil particles and cyanobacteria,
algae, microfungi, lichens, and bryophytes which live within, or immediately on top of, the
uppermost millimeters of the soil (Belnap et al., 2003). Soil particles become aggregated
through the presence of polymeric exudates and continuous growth of this biota, resulting in
a hardy layer on the grounds surface (Belnap et al., 2003). BSC most often occur in areas of
extreme temperatures, high levels of solar radiation, and prolonged dry periods (Belnap et al.,
2003). BSC have been found worldwide in almost all arid and semiarid microclimates and
biomes (Bdel, 2003).
BSCs contribute to soil carbon and nitrogen fluxes and modulate water infiltration and
storage, directly affecting the structure of vascular plant communities and their consumers
(Belnap & Lange, 2003). For example, cryptogamic covers that include BSC are estimated to
contribute ~7 % of the annual global carbon sequestration by terrestrial biota and ~40 % of
annual biological nitrogen fixation (Elbert et al., 2009; 2012,). Although studies on biological
and ecophysiological aspects of BCSs has increased in recent years (Concostrina-Zubiri et al.,
2013), there is a huge information vacuum regarding BSCs and their biotic interactions with
vascular plants, invertebrates, and vertebrates (Castillo-Monroy & Maestre, 2011).

Biological soil crust in Peru

BSC can be formed in arid and/or cold regions of Peru where vegetation is sparse. Here we
report BSC from four sites, two in the high Andean region above 4000 m in the Puna
around of Huayllay (1100S 7623W, annual temperature 3.8C, precipitation 245.9 mm)
in Pasco, and around of Juliaca (1530S 7009W, annual temperature 9.5C, precipitation
615.0 mm) in Puno (Figs. 1 a-c). The other two are in the coastal desert of the Pacific
within the so-called coastal Lomas, one in Lomas de Lachay (1122S - 7722W, annual
temperature 14.9C, precipitation 210.0 mm) and around of Barranca (1045S - 7740W,
annual temperature 18.9C, precipitation 4.0 mm) both in Lima (Figs. 1 d-j).

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Arana et al.

Biological soil crust in Peruvian Andes

The Peruvian Andes are one of the most geographically complex environments in the world,
with areas of great altitudinal variation and extreme humidity differences, forming a varied
mosaic of different landscapes. It is in the area considered as Puna, distributed between 3300
and 4500 m altitude, where conditions for the development of BSC are presented. In the
Puna the low temperatures and the long dry season determine the development of scattered
vegetation in most of the area, being characteristic the grasslands. Another area of particular

importance is present around the high mountain areas, below the snow line, where the rocks
make micro environments occupied by a particular flora. On bare soil between the sparse
vegetation and rocks the BSC is established (Fig. 1a).
Although different types of BSC have a complex distribution pattern in the landscape of the
Puna, it is observed that in general BSC are dominated by lichens in the drier areas around
rocks and stones (Fig. 1b), while mosses dominate the cover in wetter areas between tussocks
of grasses (Fig. 1c).

Biological soil crust in coastal Peruvian Lomas

The Peruvian desert is a narrow hyper-arid band confined to the coast that extends 2,000 km
(5-18S) and covers about 9.4% of Peru (120,651 km2). Biodiversity hotspots with a high
percentage of endemic species that specialized on extreme aridity are common throughout
this vast desert fringe (Rundel et al., 1990, Arana & Salinas, 2007). The coastal landscape
is dominated by alluvial flats, but areas with small mountains condense the winter sea fog,
providing moisture and supporting seasonal plant communities called Lomas (Rundel et al.,
1990; Arana & Salinas, 2007). We have recorded the extensive occurrence of BSCs in these
ecosystems (Fig. 1 d).
In Lomas ecosystems, humidity increases with elevation, creating a gradient that strongly
influences the characteristics and composition of BSCs (annual temperature 17C and
precipitation 100 mm). From 150-350 m above sea level a BSC dominated by cyanobacteria
first appears (Figs. 1 e and f ). From 350-400 m lichens become the dominant cover (Fig. 1g).
Above 400 m in Lachay, BSCs are dominated by mosses (Fig. 1 j), but noting that areas with
dense scrublands lack BSC. Nevertheless, variability in the relationship between elevation
and BSC type should be expected among different Lomas sites. This is because factors such
as aspect, slope and distance to the ocean can create different humidity values on different
Lomas sites.

Perspectives for future BSC research in Peru

Although many BSC from subtropical to Polar Regions have been described in recent decades
(Belnap & Lange, 2003; Trk & Grtner, 2003; Bdel, 2005; Karsten & Holzinger, 2014)
little is known of tropical BSCs. It is remarkable that in Peru there are no previous studies on
the BSC. Thus, BSC studies ranging from basic structural and taxonomic characterizations,
distributional ranges, nutrient fluxes, and interactions with higher taxa are warranted.
BSCs have been reported to be ecosystem engineers in other arid regions with important
roles in primary productivity, nitrogen and carbon cycling, mineralization, water retention,

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Biological soil crust in Peru: first record and description

and stabilization of soils (Evans & Johansen, 1999; Reynolds et al., 2001; Lewis, 2007; Karsten
& Holzinger, 2014). It is likely that much of Perus arid and semiarid ecosystems and their
high endemism depend directly or indirectly on the presence of BSCs.
For example, a recent review shows that BSCs contribute to fixing about 7% the carbon and
46% of the nitrogen in terrestrial ecosystems (Elbert et al., 2012). But in large areas like the
Peruvian high Andes and the coastal deserts, the contribution of BSCs to carbon and nitrogen
fluxes is not known yet. It is also important to conduct studies addressing the relationships
between higher plants and animals, and how BSC structure and function relates to plant and
animal community diversity and structure. The unique characteristics of the Peruvian coastal
desert and high Andes biomes makes it difficult to extrapolate knowledge from other systems,
creating a strong need for local field studies.

This work was partially supported by the Vicerectorado de Investigacin of Universidad
Nacional Mayor de San Marcos. The authors thank the staff of the Reserva Nacional Lomas de
Lachay especially the heads of the protected area Dilmar Claros, Miguel Antonio and David
Orosco. Special thanks to the members of the departments of Ecology and Ornithology of the
Natural History Museum of San Marcos for their help with field work, and museum director
Betty Milln for support.

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Biological soil crust in Peru: first record and description

Figure 1. (a) Andean landscape where BSC develop among tussocks of grasses, (b) Andean
BSC dominated by mosses, (c) Andean BSC with dominated by lichens, (d) Coastal Lomas
landscape with BSC visible as an widespread dark layer on the soil, (e) Vertical profile and
(f ) top view of coastal BSC with cyanobacterial dominance, (g) Top view and (h) vertical
profile of coastal BSC with lichen dominance, and (i) coastal mixed BSC of cyanobacteria and
lichens, (j) coastal BSC dominated by mosses.

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Figure 2. Map of distribution of BSC in South

America (after Bdel 2003).

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Biological soil crust in Peru: first record and description

Figure 3. Map of areas with potential presence of BSC

in Peru (black areas with reports of field, gray areas with
suspect of sparse presence).

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