Regular Article

Plant and Soil

, Volume 328, Issue 1, pp 421-431

First online:

Impact of biological soil crusts and desert plants on soil microfaunal community composition

  • Brian J. DarbyAffiliated withDepartment of Plant and Soil Science, University of Vermont Email author 
  • , Deborah A. NeherAffiliated withDepartment of Plant and Soil Science, University of Vermont
  • , Jayne BelnapAffiliated withUnited States Geological Survey

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Carbon and nitrogen are supplied by a variety of sources in the desert food web; both vascular and non-vascular plants and cyanobacteria supply carbon, and cyanobacteria and plant-associated rhizosphere bacteria are sources of biological nitrogen fixation. The objective of this study was to compare the relative influence of vascular plants and biological soil crusts on desert soil nematode and protozoan abundance and community composition. In the first experiment, biological soil crusts were removed by physical trampling. Treatments with crust removed had fewer nematodes and a greater relative ratio of bacterivores to microphytophages than treatments with intact crust. However, protozoa composition was similar with or without the presence of crusts. In a second experiment, nematode community composition was characterized along a spatial gradient away from stems of grasses or shrubs. Although nematodes generally occurred in increasing abundance nearer to plant stems, some genera (such as the enrichment-type Panagrolaimus) increased disproportionately more than others (such as the stress-tolerant Acromoldavicus). We propose that the impact of biological soil crusts and desert plants on soil microfauna, as reflected in the community composition of microbivorous nematodes, is a combination of carbon input, microclimate amelioration, and altered soil hydrology.


Colorado Plateau Soil fauna Desert Soil food webs Islands of fertility