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Title: Rainfall pulse regime drives biomass and community composition in biological soil crusts

Future climates will alter the frequency and size of rain events in drylands, potentially affecting soil microbes that generate carbon feedbacks to climate, but field tests are rare. Topsoils in drylands are commonly colonized by biological soil crusts (biocrusts), photosynthesis‐based communities that provide services ranging from soil fertilization to stabilization against erosion. We quantified responses of biocrust microbial communities to 12 years of altered rainfall regimes, with 60 mm of additional rain per year delivered either as small (5 mm) weekly rains or large (20 mm) monthly rains during the summer monsoon season. Rain addition promoted microbial diversity, suppressed the dominant cyanobacterium,Microcoleus vaginatus, and enhanced nitrogen‐fixing taxa, but did not consistently increase microbial biomass. The addition of many small rain events increased microbial biomass, whereas few, large events did not. These results alter the physiological paradigm that biocrusts are most limited by the amount of rainfall and instead predict that regimes enriched in small rain events will boost cyanobacterial biocrusts and enhance their beneficial services to drylands.

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Award ID(s):
1655499 1911451 1856383
Author(s) / Creator(s):
 ;  ;  ;  
Publisher / Repository:
Wiley Blackwell (John Wiley & Sons)
Date Published:
Journal Name:
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
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  1. Abstract

    Species interactions may couple the resource dynamics of different primary producers and may enhance productivity by reducing loss from the system. In low‐resource systems, this biotic control may be especially important for maintaining productivity. In drylands, the activities of vascular plants and biological soil crusts can be decoupled in space because biocrusts grow on the soil surface but plant roots are underground, and decoupled in time due to biocrusts activating with smaller precipitation events than plants. Soil fungi are hypothesized to functionally couple the plants and biocrusts by transporting nutrients. We studied whether disrupting fungi between biocrusts and plants reduces nitrogen transfer and retention and decreases primary production as predicted by the fungal loop hypothesis. Additionally, we compared varying precipitation regimes that can drive different timing and depth of biological activities.

    We used field mesocosms in which the potential for fungal connections between biocrusts and roots remained intact or were impeded by mesh. We imposed a precipitation regime of small, frequent or large, infrequent rain events. We used15N to track fungal‐mediated nitrogen (N) transfer. We quantified microbial carbon use efficiency and plant and biocrust production and N content.

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