Abstract Microphytic crusts are important components of arid and semi-arid systems. They play important roles in ecosystem processes and are useful indicators of landscape health. Despite their importance, microphytic crusts and their component organisms are little understood, largely due to their small size and the difficulty in identifying them to species level. The influence of microphytic crust organisms on soils and landscapes, and their response to and recovery from perturbation is related largely by their morphology or external appearance. In this paper we examine the relationships between morphological groups of lichens and bryophytes associated with soil crusts, and their roles in ecosystem processes in rangelands. Using published and unpublished data we propose that the morphological group approach is a more efficient method of monitoring soil crust organisms than one based on the traditional species approach.