Climate change and physical disturbance cause similar community shifts in biological soil crusts

By: , and 



Biological soil crusts (biocrusts)—communities of mosses, lichens, cyanobacteria, and heterotrophs living at the soil surface—are fundamental components of drylands worldwide, and destruction of biocrusts dramatically alters biogeochemical processes, hydrology, surface energy balance, and vegetation cover. While there has been long-standing concern over impacts of 5 physical disturbances on biocrusts (e.g., trampling by livestock, damage from vehicles), there is also increasing concern over the potential for climate change to alter biocrust community structure. Using long-term data from the Colorado Plateau, USA, we examined the effects of 10 years of experimental warming and altered precipitation (in full-factorial design) on biocrust communities, and compared the effects of altered climate with those of long-term physical 10 disturbance (>10 years of replicated human trampling). Surprisingly, altered climate and physical disturbance treatments had similar effects on biocrust community structure. Warming, altered precipitation frequency [an increase of small (1.2 mm) summer rainfall events], and physical disturbance from trampling all promoted early successional community states marked by dramatic declines in moss cover and increased cyanobacteria cover, with more variable effects 15 on lichens. While the pace of community change varied significantly among treatments, our results suggest that multiple aspects of climate change will affect biocrusts to the same degree as physical disturbance. This is particularly disconcerting in the context of warming, as temperatures for drylands are projected to increase beyond those imposed by the climate treatments used in our study.

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Climate change and physical disturbance cause similar community shifts in biological soil crusts
Series title PNAS
DOI 10.1073/pnas.1509150112
Volume 112
Issue 39
Year Published 2015
Language English
Publisher National Academy of Sciences
Publisher location Washington, D.C.
Contributing office(s) Southwest Biological Science Center
Description 6 p.
First page 12116
Last page 12121
Online Only (Y/N) N
Additional Online Files (Y/N) N
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