Journal of Soils and Sediments

, Volume 20, Issue 1, pp 133–142 | Cite as

Biocrusts resist runoff erosion through direct physical protection and indirect modification of soil properties

  • Liqian Gao
  • Hui Sun
  • Mingxiang Xu
  • Yunge ZhaoEmail author
Soils, Sec 2 • Global Change, Environ Risk Assess, Sustainable Land Use • Research Article



Biological soil crusts (biocrusts) are ubiquitous in arid and semi-arid regions and play many critical roles in soil stabilization and erosion prevention, greatly decreasing soil loss. Although sediments may be completely controlled by well-developed biocrusts, runoff loss is observed. Consequently, it is important to study how biocrusts resist runoff erosion in different developmental stages to evaluate and manage water erosion.

Materials and methods

In the Loess Plateau Region, we sampled 32 biocrust plots representing eight stages of biocrust development and 5 slope cropland soil plots as bare soil control plots. We then used a rectangular open channel hydraulic flume to test the effects of biocrust development on runoff erosion.

Results and discussion

As expected, the establishment of biocrusts enhanced soil stability, and accordingly, soil anti-scourability significantly increased with biocrust development. Biocrusts exhibiting more than 36% or 1.22 g dm−2 of moss coverage or biomass fully protected the soil from runoff erosion. Moreover, soil properties, such as soil organic matter, soil cohesion and soil bulk density, were also important in reducing erosion. The findings indicated that biocrusts inhibited runoff erosion through direct physical protection related to biocrust cover and biomass and through the indirect modification of soil properties. In the early biocrust development stage (when moss cover was less than 36%), cyanobacterial biocrust played a primary role in providing resistance to runoff erosion, with resistance being positively related to cyanobacterial biomass (chlorophyll a) and influenced by soil properties.


The relationship between soil anti-scourability and moss coverage or biomass can be divided into two stages based on a moss cover or biomass threshold. The capacity of biocrusts to resist runoff erosion was limited when moss cover was below the threshold value. Therefore, the stage corresponding to this level of moss cover should be of concern when estimating, predicting and managing water erosion.


Cyanobacteria Development Loess Plateau Moss Water erosion 



We also express our gratitude to the anonymous reviewers and editors for their constructive comments and suggestions.

Funding information

This research was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (grant nos. 41830758, 41571268) and China Postdoctoral Science Foundation (grant no. 2018M643754).


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.State Key Laboratory of Soil Erosion and Dryland Farming on the Loess Plateau, Institute of Soil and Water ConservationNorthwest A & F UniversityYanglingChina
  2. 2.College of Biological Science and EngineeringNorth University of NationalitiesYinchuanChina

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