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Biological soil crusts (BSCs), or biocrusts, are composed of fungi, bacteria, algae, and bryophytes (mosses, etc.) that occupy bare soil, entwining soil particles with filaments or rootlike structures and/or gluing them together with polysaccharide exudates to form a consolidated surface crust that stabilizes the soil against erosion. BSCs are common in arid and semiarid regions where vascular plant cover is naturally sparse, maximizing the exposure of surface-dwelling organisms to direct sunlight. Although less prominent and less studied there, BSC organisms are also present in more mesic areas such as the Great Plains where they can be found in shortgrass and mixed-grass prairie, in the badlands of several states, where burrowing animals have created patches of bare soil, on damaged road-cuts, strip-mines, gas and oil drill pads, military training areas, heavily grazed areas, and burn scars. Even where BSCs are not readily visible to the naked eye, many of the organisms are still present. BSC organisms are passively dispersed to the Great Plains as airborne organismal fragments, asexual diaspores, or sexual spores that accompany wind-blown dust from as far away as northern China and Mongolia. BSCs can best be studied and managed by 1) acknowledging their presence; 2) documenting their diversity, abundance, and functional roles; and 3) minimizing unnecessary disturbance, particularly when the soils are dry. This paper describes the current knowledge of Great Plains BSCs in an effort to heighten awareness of these cryptic but crucial ecosystem components and to encourage new research initiatives to better understand and manage them in this biome. Some specific actions may include refined taxonomic and ecologic studies of BSC organisms in underexplored areas, particularly those previously less or not recognized as BSC habitat, and incorporation of techniques to sample airborne organisms.

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