, Volume 17, Issue 1, pp 1-20
Date: 13 Nov 2007

Recovery of lichen-dominated soil crusts in a hyper-arid desert

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Abstract

Soil crust lichens can be the dominant vegetation in desert regions that are unsuitable for higher plants, and are vital to soil stabilization and primary production. Biological soil crusts are vulnerable to disturbance and there is little evidence of the lichen components achieving full recovery following human disturbances in semi-arid to arid environments, and no records of recovery in hyper-arid deserts. Eight sites with varying anthropogenic, mechanical disturbance regimes were assessed in the hyper-arid Namib Desert for levels of recovery and successional convergence, based on a comparative analysis of overall lichen cover and community composition in disturbed and control locations. Recovery time estimations ranged from 5 to 530 years, with no detected linear relationship to impact gradient (low to high impact). Variables that were found to most strongly influence recovery rates were the overall cover of lichen growth and total number of lichen species in the bordering undisturbed areas, followed by the extent of soil compaction in the disturbed area, altered soil surface microrelief and vitality of subsurface soil crust components. An assessment of pioneering species demonstrated a link between increased soil depressions, i.e. track ruts, and the occurrence of fragmenting, wind-dispersing species. Track ruts in hype-arid deserts are not as vulnerable to the water erosion found in less arid deserts, and may be advancing recovery by trapping fragments. However, the lichen community structure was significantly different between all of the disturbed and control areas, regardless of the recovery phase, suggesting that while the lichen community composition may not. The ecological consequences of such disturbances may be far reaching in hyper-arid deserts where lichens are primary heterotrophs soil stabilizers. Given the economic development occurring within coastal hyper-acid deserts of the world, these impacts undoubtedly call for conservation attention.