• Photo of the steep natural entrance of Carlsbad Caverns

    Carlsbad Caverns

    National Park New Mexico

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  • Elevator Renovations

    Allow more time to visit and expect lines for small elevators while large elevator system is renovated. Walking exit is steep.

  • Cave Lighting Project

    We are undergoing a year-long lighting project in the cavern. Please be aware of caution tape along pathways inside the cave and use due care.

Lichens

An example of the lichens that live on the soil surface in Carlsbad Caverns National Park. They can look dead until it rains.
An example of the lichens that live on the soil surface in Carlsbad Caverns National Park. They can look dead until it rains.
NPS Photo by Renée West
 

Lichens are the result of a symbiotic relationship between algae and fungi. At Carlsbad Caverns National Park, lichens can be seen on rocks and tree trunks to a limited extent. More prominent are the black, brown, and white "crusts" that can be seen on the soil surface. These crusts are living organisms, composed of various lichens, algae, mosses, and liverworts. Previously referred to as "cryptogamic crusts," researchers prefer to use more scientifically correct terms, such as "microphytic" (tiny plants) or "microbiotic" (tiny organisms) to describe these organisms.

The crusts don't look very impressive when they're dry, but when it rains they come out of dormancy quickly. Rapidly absorbing moisture, they develop the deeper pigments (especially greens) for photosynthesis. During this time, the plants take advantage of the moisture to grow and reproduce by producing spores.

Microphytic crust can be an important component of arid and semi-arid ecosystems. For example, they prevent soil erosion. This happens two ways. First, the root-like structures of lichens and mosses, along with the filaments of some algae, bind the soil particles together. This often creates an irregular soil surface that interrupts wind patterns, reducing wind erosion and trapping wind-borne soil particles. Second, the crusts physically protect the soil by covering it with their thalli ('bodies'), thereby reducing rain-caused erosion and removal of sediment.

Crusts also improve the moisture content of soils by increasing the depth of water penetration and the total soil moisture content. Crusts may also decrease evaporation from the soil surface, enhancing the higher rain infiltration rates found in crusted soils. Crusts enhance seed germination and seedling development, presumably by providing a stable soil substrate and extra nutrients.

The effects of algae and lichens on soil fertility have been studied extensively. Certain crusts contribute high quantities of nitrogen, an extremely limited nutrient in desert soils. Crusts also contribute organic matter (carbon compounds) to soils.

These crusts tend to be rather fragile and are often severely damaged by mountain bikes, hikers, cattle and fire. Studies have documented varying recovery times, usually measured in decades. These are just some of the plants that benefit when hikers stay on trails.

Did You Know?

Jim White, Amelia Earhart and others at Carlsbad Cave National Monument in 1928.

The first "official" and very influential book on Jim White's adventures in Carlsbad Cavern was written in 1930 by a newsman who at best would today be called a tabloid journalist.