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This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/).

Biogeomorphological research blossomed during the second half of the twentieth century, partly in response to some big, unanswered questions about the role of vegetation in fluvial geomorphology, but also as technical advances allowed more detailed study of the complex interactions between biota and Earth surface processes. Formal recognition of biogeomorphology (also known as ecogeomorphology) as a subfield of geomorphology came in the late 1980s, building on several foundational pieces of research. Key foci of interest for biogeomorphological research up until the end of the twentieth century were quantifying the impact of vegetation on erosion and the geomorphological roles of individual animal species, as well as understanding the human influences on biogeomorphic systems.

Biogeomorphology, although not named as such until the 1980s, has had a long history. Biological influences on the physical landscape were recognized, for instance, by Charles Darwin in his work on coral reefs (Darwin 1842) and on earthworms (Darwin 1881). Archibald Geikie's Textbook of Geology (Geikie 1898) summarized a great deal of nineteenth-century work on the contribution of organisms to denudation, and George Perkins Marsh (Marsh 1864) demonstrated how the alteration of natural vegetation by humans had transformed erosion and runoff in many parts of the world. However, with the exception of Darwin's work on earthworms, most of these nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century contributions were qualitative rather than quantitative. Some fundamental discoveries were made during this period about the detailed impact of organisms on geomorphic processes, such as the careful microscopy and experimental work of the botanist E. Jennie Fry (Fry 1927) on the role played by lichens in the mechanical weathering of a range of rock types. Viles (2011) provides a fuller coverage of the work linking biological and geomorphological spheres over this period.

At the beginning of the 1960s, Anglo-American geomorphology was facing a time of great change. Increasing interest in process-based studies and statistical analyses was accompanied by a reappraisal of the importance of, and controls on, long-term landscape evolution. Considerations of the interactions between geomorphology and biology (which later became more formally known as biogeomorphology) featured in these fertile debates, producing some of the foundational concepts and approaches that shaped geomorphology over the rest of the twentieth century.

Two quotes from the influential text on fluvial processes in geomorphology by Leopold et al. (1964) summarize the sentiments of many process geomorphologists at the time that biological processes are highly interlinked with climate and add complex dimensions to geomorphological processes:

The natural world is highly variable and the mechanics of uplift, weathering and erosion are for the most part poorly understood. As will be seen, climate itself is a complex factor, and in most regions of the world inorganic processes are inseparable from the complex organic processes carried on by plants and animals

(pp. 4–5).

It is not surprising to any natural scientist that detailed investigations of specific geomorphic processes reveal that the combination of biological and physical processes in nature is immensely complex

(p. 92).

Some classic studies within geomorphology in the mid-twentieth century chose field sites that allowed them to ignore such complexities. The work of Stanley Schumm in the Perth Amboy Badlands of New Jersey, for example, provided the foundations for modern process understandings of how drainage networks develop, and how creep and rainwash influence slope profiles (Schumm 1956). Schumm notes the almost complete absence of vegetation on these slopes apart from ‘one wild cherry tree and a small patch of poison ivy on the western drainage divide’ (Schumm 1956, p. 601). However, other foundational geomorphological investigations chose to focus on the complex relationship between erosion, climate and vegetation. For example, Langbein and Schumm (1958) used the patchily available data at the time to investigate the relationship between sediment yield and mean annual precipitation. As their classic graph depicts (Fig. 1), they explain how sediment yield is related in a non-linear manner to precipitation:

The variation in sediment yield with climate can be explained by the operation of two factors each related to precipitation. The erosive influence of precipitation increases with its amount, through its direct impact in eroding soil and in generating runoff with further capacity for erosion and for transportation. Opposing this influence is the effect of vegetation, which increases in bulk with effective annual precipitation

(Langbein and Schumm 1958, pp. 1079–1080).

Fig. 1.

Graph depicting the non-linear relationship between annual mean precipitation and annual sediment yield as influenced by vegetation (redrawn from Langbein and Schumm 1958).

Fig. 1.

Graph depicting the non-linear relationship between annual mean precipitation and annual sediment yield as influenced by vegetation (redrawn from Langbein and Schumm 1958).

The interplay of climate and vegetation also featured strongly within the foundational paper of Schumm and Lichty (1965) on ‘time, space and causality in geomorphology’. This paper proposed a conceptual framework to illustrate the different fundamental controls on geomorphology over cyclic, graded and steady timescales. Schumm and Lichty produced this analysis as a way of trying to resolve the incompatibilities between the prevailing evolutionary and process-based, time-independent views of the geomorphic landscape. In their framework, vegetation (in terms of both type and density, which Schumm and Lichty explain are controlled by lithology and climate) is portrayed as a dependent variable in drainage basins over cyclic timescales (and thus not a crucial control over long-term landscape development), but becomes an independent, controlling variable over graded and steady timescales. Schumm and Lichty (1965) do not, however, go into any detail about how vegetation type and density exert an influence on geomorphology within drainage basins.

Geomorphologists working within forested mountain areas in the mid-twentieth century were particularly struck by these complex interactions between vegetation and geomorphic processes. Hack and Goodlett (1960, p. 56), in a detailed report on the impacts of a major storm event in 1949 on the geomorphology and forest ecology of the Little River catchment within the central Appalachians, note the following two-way interactions:

Geomorphic processes strongly affect, and in turn are strongly affected by the vegetation mantling the slopes of the central Appalachians. The mountainous terrain produced by geomorphic processes creates a pronounced geographic separation of species and groups of species. On the other hand, geomorphic processes take place in or through the forest vegetation and are modified by it. In large part, the present landscape is the product of a long period of interaction between botanical and geomorphic processes.

During the late 1960s and 1970s, the burgeoning environmental and ecological movements accelerated scientific and popular interest in ecosystem structure and function, and some geomorphologists, especially those working within tropical settings, became heavily engaged with ecosystem research under the framework of the International Geosphere Biosphere Project (Douglas 1978). Roger McLean produced several pioneering papers on coastal bioerosion during this period, such as McLean (1967), which attempted one of the first quantifications of the bioerosive role of a number of gastropod species on tropical beachrock.

Important conceptual advances were made within the field of fluvial geomorphology that linked biota and geomorphic change, most notably the work of Knox (1972), but see also Trimble (1974). Knox looked at millennial-scale histories of valley alluviation within the forest–prairie ecotone in the USA and showed how linked changes in climate and vegetation had knock-on impacts on surface runoff and sediment yield, which in turn controlled the evolution of channel and floodplain systems. Human influence, in the form of land-use change, could also exert similar complex responses. In this paper, he coined the term ‘biogeomorphic’ and showed that:

[A]brupt changes in hydrologic regimen related to biogeomorphic events in the drainage basin control the evolution of the channel and floodplain

(Knox 1972, p. 401).

He also produced a conceptual model (illustrated in Knox 1972, fig. 6) that showed how a non-linear biogeomorphic response could be produced by abrupt changes in climate.

Geomorphologists working in forested environments were particularly engaged with ecologists during the 1970s and early 1980s. For example, Frederick Swanson worked as a geologist at the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest, which was one of the Coniferous Forest biome sites of the International Biological Program (IBP) and became a Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) site. Reflecting on his experience from this work, and his vision for interdisciplinary research on geomorphology and ecosystems, Swanson (1980, pp. 159 and 162, respectively) wrote:

The full richness of geomorphic–biologic interactions really emerges from programs of ecosystem analysis where earth and life scientists work closely together on common topics, sites, and time frames.

[O]n the intermediate scale of secondary succession, change in plant community composition, vigor, and structure can profoundly affect rates of geomorphic processes. Geomorphic events may, in turn, set the stage for succession by creating fresh substrates and may determine to some extent the rate and type of plant community development that follows a major ecosystem disturbance.

Swanson (1980) combined the multiple and complex two-way interactions between landforms, geomorphic processes, flora and fauna in an elegant and simple diagram (reproduced as Fig. 2), which nicely encapsulates the main directions of biogeomorphological research from the 1980s to the end of the twentieth century.

Fig. 2.

Relationships between landforms, geomorphic processes, flora and fauna as portrayed by Swanson (1980). Reproduced with permission of Oregon State University Press.

Fig. 2.

Relationships between landforms, geomorphic processes, flora and fauna as portrayed by Swanson (1980). Reproduced with permission of Oregon State University Press.

The ideas presented above became formalized under the umbrella term ‘Biogeomorphology’ in the late 1980s, which was defined as ‘an approach to geomorphology which explicitly considers the role of organisms’ (Viles 1988, p. 1), or ‘the scientific study of interactions and feedbacks between living and nonliving parts of the landscape’ (Coombes 2016a, p. 1). Building on the work of many of the earlier scientists discussed above, Viles (1988, p. 1) recognized two linked foci for biogeomorphological research: ‘The influence of landforms/geomorphology on the distributions and development of plants, animals and microorganisms’; and ‘The influence of plants, animals and microorganisms on earth surface processes and the development of landforms’. She also divided biological influences in geomorphology into static and dynamic effects, ‘i.e. those due to organism communities in some sort of equilibrium with their surroundings, and those due to a change in such organism communities’ (p. 351). For instance, she suggested that vegetation communities have a static effect on soil erosion through their impact on hydrology and soil structure, whereas the removal or alteration of vegetation (e.g. by fire) has a dynamic effect, in that the equilibrium is upset and soil erosion rates may be increased or reduced. Finally, she drew a distinction between active and passive effects of organisms. Active effects are ‘those in which where an organic process is involved (e.g. where there is a flow of energy and/or nutrients’ (p. 351). Bioturbation, bioerosion and biochemical weathering are examples of this. Passive effects are due simply to the presence of an organism (e.g. the presence of coastal grasses encourages dune sedimentation and growth). The whole spectrum of biological life forms is involved in biogeomorphological interactions, from bacteria affecting weathering and mineral precipitation, to elephants and cows causing trampling and ground compaction, to the effects of a large forest community on the behaviour of entire river catchments (Viles 2004). It became evident that organisms can accelerate or decelerate rates of processes. In that connection, Naylor et al. (2002) drew a distinction between bioerosion, bioconstruction and bioprotection.

During the late 1980s a number of foundational texts on biogeomorphology and other cognate fields were produced, including those by Thornes (1985, 1990) on vegetation and erosion, Howard and Mitchell (1985) on phytogeomorphology, Viles (1988) on biogeomorphology, and Butler (1995) on zoogeomorphology. Major work was also undertaken in Australia by Humphreys (Humphreys and Mitchell 1983). In parallel, following the work of Jones et al. (1997), the role of organisms as ecosystem engineers gained traction amongst ecologists. As with many fields of science, biogeomorphological investigations grew rapidly from the 1990s onwards, as demonstrated by Coombes (2016b) and Viles (2020) (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3.

Cumulative growth in (a) publications and (b) citations on biogeomorphological topics, 1972–2018.

Fig. 3.

Cumulative growth in (a) publications and (b) citations on biogeomorphological topics, 1972–2018.

Viles (1988, p. 6) recognized that there were various factors at the end of the twentieth century that were encouraging geomorphologists to consider ecological factors at greater depth than hitherto. She noted: (1) the growth in disciplines such as biogeochemistry and geomicrobiology; (2) technological developments (including large-scale data collection and analysis under the auspices of the International Geosphere–Biosphere Programme (IGBP) (1987–2015), which was dedicated to studying the phenomenon global change, focusing on coordinating international research on global- and regional-scale interactions between Earth's biological, chemical and physical processes and their interactions with human systems); and (3) the increasingly applied/management focus of geomorphology. Many ‘soft engineering’ schemes for environmental management rely upon the recreation or encouragement of biogeomorphological systems (Naylor et al. 2002). For example, salt-marsh restoration schemes and the creation of ‘set back’ salt marshes from previously reclaimed farming land require a knowledge of the two-way interplay between sedimentation and biological growth, as well as the interaction of both of these with water flows (Burd 1995). ‘Soft engineering’ also became used more frequently for river management (Bravard et al. 1999).

The edited book on biogeomorphology (Viles 1988) contains a wide range of material that brings together contributions from geomorphologists and ecologists. Among the topics covered are the relationships between vegetation and river channel form and process, the influence of organisms on soil processes, erosion rates in response to land-cover changes in temperate regions, the two-way links between geomorphology and vegetation in the humid tropics, the work achieved by termites and worms in the tropics, the influences on aeolian forms and processes (including pan formation), patterned ground in periglacial areas, soft and rocky coastal environments, and biokarst. Some reviews of the book suggested that it focused too much on the peculiar, without enough consideration of geomorphological dynamics, and that biogeomorphology was a bit of a sideline (Cox 1989; Wainwright and Parsons 2010). However, by the end of the twentieth century biogeomorphology had clearly developed from being an esoteric scientific backwater dealing with a few bizarre processes, to being crucial, inter alia, in the search for life on other planets, for understanding sedimentary structures in the rock record and in environmental engineering (Viles 2004). As Etienne (2010) argued, biogeomorphology had successfully moved from being fun to being fundamental.

An illustration of the move away from the study of interesting oddities during the latter part of the twentieth century is provided by interdisciplinary work on ecosystem dynamics, nutrient cycling and geomorphic processes in the experimental catchments (e.g. see the work of Bormann and Likens 1979 at the Hubbard Brook experimental catchment). Nutrient cycling proved to be highly important for understanding chemical denudation in humid tropical environments (Douglas 1969). Viles (1990, pp. 8–12) provides other examples of such work (e.g. that by Crowther 1987 and by Lelong and Wedraogo-Dumazet 1987). There was also an increasing appreciation (Viles 1995; 2012) of the role of microorganisms (bacteria, cyanobacteria, fungi, algae and lichens) in rock weathering, laminar calcrete development (Goudie 1996) and varnish formation (Dorn and Oberlander 1981), as well as in the development of biological soil crusts and the bioprotective role they play in arid environments (Campbell et al. 1989). All these areas of work have proved to be important underpinnings of a broader consideration of the processes affecting landscape dynamics within a range of environments.

Associated with these developments, by the late twentieth century a whole range of different overarching names for work at the interface of biology, ecology and geomorphology had been proposed, as summarized in Viles (2020). The term ‘ecogeomorphology’ has become particularly commonly used (Hudson 2002; Thoms and Parsons, 2002; Fagherazzi et al. 2004) by those working on marshes and floodplains.

Three particularly important strands of biogeomorphic research were pursued in the latter part of the twentieth century, as reviewed in more detail below. First, research focused on providing quantitative data to address some of the fundamental questions posed by geomorphologists in the 1960s such as the relations between vegetation and erosion. Second, a whole plethora of studies aimed at identifying and quantifying the role of individual animal species, often linking to bigger questions of ecosystem functioning. Third, many researchers addressed topics of human impacts on biogeomorphic systems, and the possibilities for managing and remediating these.

Erosion process and rates are fundamentally affected by plants in all environments except glacial zones and many papers developed quantitative assessments based on a range of field monitoring methods. Processes such as tree fall (Schaetzel 1986) and root penetration (de Ploey and Cruz 1979) have major effects on slope forms and processes, while vegetation influences rainfall routes, infiltration rates, runoff and subsurface flow, and temperature and wind characteristics. Root systems play a role in the suppression of shallow landslides (Preston and Crozier 1999). Vegetation has a major impact on river channel forms, floodplains and bank erosion, as demonstrated in the foundational research of Ken Gregory, Angela Gurnell and colleagues (see Marston 1982; Graf 1988; Gregory and Gurnell 1988; Brown 1997; Gurnell 1997; Hughes 1997). Building on the ideas of Swanson (1980), who recognized that geomorphological processes affected vegetation and vice versa, several researchers have attempted to quantify these relationships in different settings (Phillips 1995; Piégay et al. 2000; Tooth and Nanson 2000). Fluvial biogeomorphology can be seen to have experienced three, overlapping, phases during the later twentieth century. First, recognition of associations between particular plant species and fluvial landforms started in the 1940s, but accelerated in the 1980s (Gurnell 1995). Second, the importance of coarse woody debris (now more often called ‘large wood’) to river morphodynamics was the focus of much research in the 1980s and 1990s (e.g. see Gurnell et al. 1995). Finally, the interactions between riparian trees, large wood and fluvial processes became an increasingly important area of study towards the end of the century. For example, the seminal paper of Gurnell et al. (2001) proposed an island-building model based on sediment retention and stabilization around deposited large wood. As the wood sprouts, it provides root anchorage to the underlying gravel bed and root reinforcement of the aggrading landforms.

Vegetation's crucial roles in controlling wind velocities and turbulence at the ground surface (Wolfe and Nickling 1993) and in stabilizing surfaces (see Goudie 2021a, b, this volume); dust-storm generation and dune movements (Thomas 1988) have also been the subject of many empirical studies. The work of the Wind Erosion Research Center at Kansas State University was especially formative (https://infosys.ars.usda.gov/WindErosion/HistoryWERU.pdf: accessed 28 March 2020). Research elsewhere showed that vegetation conditions were fundamental as controls of dune forms and activity (Ash and Wasson 1983; Tsoar et al. 1986).

A huge literature developed on the biogeomorphological role of animals (e.g. see the studies of the role of isopods in the Negev by Yair and Rutin 1981; and Yair 1995), including the major role played in warm environments by termites (Goudie 1988; Dangerfield et al. 1998) and ants (De Bruyn and Conacher 1990). David Butler led the field, and studied a whole range of animals including grizzly bears (Butler 1992) and mountain goats (Butler 1993). Butler and Malanson (1995) also carried out ground-breaking work on the role of beavers, and Trimble and Mendel (1995) provided a detailed analysis of the role of cows. Indeed, beavers were particularly well studied in the late twentieth century and are now known to be important agents of zoogeomorphology, with their ecosystem engineering roles being very important for many nature restoration and flood protection schemes (Johnston 2017; Wohl 2019). Paton et al. (1995) indicated that the amount of bioturbation achieved by organisms was broadly related to climate, with, for example, vertebrates dominating in arid environments, earthworms in temperate environments, and insects, earthworms and vertebrates showing joint dominance in the humid subtropics. There were also detailed studies of the role of organisms in coastal environments, including the erosional role of boring molluscs, and the constructional role of organisms such as vermetids and serpulids (Kelletat 1997) and Sabellaria (Naylor and Viles 2000).

The increasing awareness of the role of humans in modifying ecosystems (Goudie 1981; see also Goudie 2021b, this volume) also served to highlight the role of changes in land use and land cover for geomorphological processes. Indeed, during the period under consideration, it became increasingly evident that human activities that caused vegetation change were hugely modifying the geomorphological environment (Trimble 1974). Examples of these changes included the spread of invasive species (Rowntree 1991), changing fire regimes (Wilson 1999), deforestation (Swanson and Dyrness 1975; Derose et al. 1993), trampling (Trimble and Mendel 1995; Kutiel et al. 2000), bush encroachment (Grover and Musick 1990) and overgrazing (Murray-Rust 1972; Rapp 1975). International collaboration amongst geomorphologists and ecologists was undertaken on desertification under the MEDALUS (Mediterranean Desertification and Land Use) programme, which commenced in 1989 (summarized in Geeson et al. 2003). There appear to be significant biophysical feedbacks in arid environments that contribute to desertification (Phillips 1993). Further research focused on understanding the role of vegetation in the dynamics of salt marshes and mangrove swamps, ecosystems that have been under increasing anthropogenic pressures (e.g. Pasternack et al. 2000, 2001) and impacted by sea-level rise (Ellison and Stoddart 1991; Ellison 1993).

During the period from the early 1960s until 2000, the position of biogeomorphology within geomorphology was transformed. Despite early recognition of the fundamental importance of vegetation in most geomorphic systems, a lack of data made it difficult to quantify, and the roles of animals and microbes were largely ignored. Thanks to better conceptualization of the complex interlinkages between biota and geomorphic processes, and more opportunities to collect data within the context of interdisciplinary ecosystem studies, biogeomorphological research became seen as fundamental rather than peripheral. It became apparent that organisms have a prominent role in many geomorphic environments, that there are significant feedbacks between organisms of all sizes and geomorphological features and processes, that ecological factors are crucial in the management of geomorphological systems such as floodplains and coastal lowlands, that ‘soft engineering’ is a valuable management tool, and that humans are having an increasing impact on biogeomorphological processes. In coming decades, it is inevitable in response to climate change that the nature and distributions of organisms will be altered, and that this will have a wide range of geomorphological consequences. Viles (2020) outlines the likely research agenda for the next 50 years. She has identified seven challenges relating to theoretical, methodological and thematic developments in biogeomorphology and their application to environmental management:

  1. A coherent and shared understanding of the underpinning concepts and terms.

  2. A shared theoretical corpus within which testable hypotheses can be proposed and explored.

  3. A multipurpose ‘modelling toolkit’ for analysing biogeomorphic systems.

  4. Meta-analyses of existing biogeomorphological process datasets to test key biogeomorphic hypotheses.

  5. An interdisciplinary approach to filling key knowledge gaps: for example, on microbial contributions to geomorphic systems.

  6. An exploration of the geomorphological signature of life on other planetary bodies.

  7. A practical application of understanding of multi-scalar, adaptive cycling in biogeomorphic systems to environmental management, conservation and risk reduction.

Thanks to David Butler and Angela Gurnell for their perceptive reviews, and to Andrew Goudie for his invaluable editorial support.

The author declares that they have no known competing financial interests or personal relationships that could have appeared to influence the work reported in this paper.

HV: conceptualization (lead), investigation (lead), writing – original draft (lead), writing – review & editing (lead).

This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.

No data were generated for this paper, which is a review.

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Figures & Tables

Fig. 1.

Graph depicting the non-linear relationship between annual mean precipitation and annual sediment yield as influenced by vegetation (redrawn from Langbein and Schumm 1958).

Fig. 1.

Graph depicting the non-linear relationship between annual mean precipitation and annual sediment yield as influenced by vegetation (redrawn from Langbein and Schumm 1958).

Fig. 2.

Relationships between landforms, geomorphic processes, flora and fauna as portrayed by Swanson (1980). Reproduced with permission of Oregon State University Press.

Fig. 2.

Relationships between landforms, geomorphic processes, flora and fauna as portrayed by Swanson (1980). Reproduced with permission of Oregon State University Press.

Fig. 3.

Cumulative growth in (a) publications and (b) citations on biogeomorphological topics, 1972–2018.

Fig. 3.

Cumulative growth in (a) publications and (b) citations on biogeomorphological topics, 1972–2018.

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