Microbiotic crusts are important components of many aridland soils. Research on crusts typically focuses on the increase in soil fertility due to N-fixing micro-organisms, the stabilization of soils against water and wind erosion and the impact of disturbance on N-cycling. The effect of microbiotic crusts on the associated plant community has received little attention. We quantified the influence of crusts on the production, species diversity, nutrient content and water relations of winter annual plant species associated with microbiotic soil crusts in the northeast Mojave Desert. Shoot biomass of winter annuals was 37% greater and plant density was 77% greater on crusts than were biomass and density on soils lacking crust cover (=bare soils). This greater production of annuals on crusts was likely due to enhanced soil conditions including an almost two-fold increase in soil organic matter and inorganic N compared to bare soils. Crusted soils also had 53% greater volumetric water content than bare soils during November and December, the time when winter annuals become established. As plant development progressed into spring, however, soil water availability decreased: More negative plant xylem water potentials were associated with greater plant biomass on crusted soils. Plants associated with microbiotic soil crusts had lower concentrations of N in shoots (mg N g-1 dry mass). However, total shoot N (mg N m-2) was the same in plants growing on the different soil types when biomass production peaked in April. Shoots had similar patterns in their concentration and content of P. Species diversity of annuals was not statistically different between the two soil types. Yet, while native annuals comprised the greatest proportion of shoot biomass on bare soils, exotic forbs and grasses produced more biomass on crusts. Total shoot nutrient content (biomass x concentration) of the two exotic annual species examined was dramatically greater on crusts than bare soils; only one native species had greater shoot content of N and P when growing on crusts than bare soils. Microbiotic crusts appear to increase site fertility in the northeast Mojave Desert, but nutrients and water distributed within a greater biomass of annual plants growing on microbiotic crusts likely resulted in lower concentrations of nutrients in plant tissue and lower xylem pressure potentials than plants growing on bare soils. Exotic annuals growing on crusts appear to respond to the higher N availability by growing faster, potentially outcompeting native annual species.
Additional publication details
Physiological variation among native and exotic winter annual plants associated with microbiotic crusts in the Mojave Desert