Plant growth and biocrust-fire interactions across five North American deserts

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Biological soil crusts (biocrusts) are communities predominately comprised of lichens, bryophytes, fungi, algae, and cyanobacteria that form at the soil surface in dryland ecosystems worldwide. Biocrusts can influence the vascular plant community by altering surface hydrology, nutrient cycling, and the availability of microsites suitable for germination. Fire frequency has increased in many dryland systems, but the potential impacts of fire on biocrust-plant interactions remains unclear. Our study explores how biocrusts and the heating associated with fire affect plant growth across five North American desert sites: the Chihuahuan, Colorado Plateau, Great Basin, Mojave, and Sonoran. Using field-collected biocrusts and mineral soil samples from each of these five deserts, we investigated soil biogeochemical differences and the implications of soil heating and biocrust cover on greenhouse grown Elymus elymoides plants. Results showed plant biomass and leaf production were largely determined by the desert where soils originated, and that the soils collected from the Great Basin site, whether heated or not, were generally higher in nutrients and distinct from the other North American desert sites. In contrast, the Chihuahuan site was lower in nutrients and plant biomass growth compared with the other desert sites. In the short term, biocrusts and heating did not significantly affect the biogeochemical profile of individual desert site soils. However, biocrusts and soil heating positively influenced plant growth, and the combination of these factors influenced plants more strongly than either factor considered separately. These findings highlight the importance of biocrusts in mediating resources and suggest additional mechanisms through which fire may alter or accentuate dynamics between biocrusts and vascular plants.

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Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Plant growth and biocrust-fire interactions across five North American deserts
Series title Geoderma
DOI 10.1016/j.geoderma.2021.115325
Volume 401
Year Published 2021
Language English
Publisher Elsevier
Contributing office(s) Southwest Biological Science Center
Description 115325, 11 p.
Country United States
State Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada
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