Vascular Plants and Biocrusts Modulate How Abiotic Factors Affect Wetting and Drying Events in Drylands
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Understanding how organisms control soil water dynamics is a major research goal in dryland ecology. Although previous studies have mostly focused on the role of vascular plants on the hydrological cycle of drylands, recent studies highlight the importance of biological soil crusts formed by lichens, mosses, and cyanobacteria (biocrusts) as a major player in this cycle. We used data from a 6.5-year study to evaluate how multiple abiotic (rainfall characteristics, temperature, and initial soil moisture) and biotic (vascular plants and biocrusts) factors interact to determine wetting and drying processes in a semi-arid grassland from Central Spain. We found that the shrub Retama sphaerocarpa and biocrusts with medium cover (25–75%) enhanced water gain and slowed drying compared with bare ground areas (BSCl). Well-developed biocrusts (>75% cover) gained more water, but lost it faster than BSCl microsites. The grass Stipa tenacissima reduced water gain due to rainfall interception, but increased soil moisture retention compared to BSCl microsites. Biotic modulation of water dynamics was the result of different mechanisms acting in tandem and often in opposite directions. For instance, biocrusts promoted an exponential behavior during the first stage of the drying curve, but reduced the importance of soil characteristics that accentuate drying rates. Biocrust-dominated microsites gained a similar amount of water than vascular plants, although they lost it faster than vascular plants during dry periods. Our results emphasize the importance of biocrusts for water dynamics in drylands, and illustrate the potential mechanisms behind their effects. They will help to further advance theoretical and modeling efforts on the hydrology of drylands and their response to ongoing climate change.
Keywordswater dynamics infiltration Retama sphaerocarpa Stipa tenacissima pulse reserve semiarid soil water
We thank A. P. Castillo-Monroy, V. Ochoa, B. Gozalo, P. Valiente, C. Escolar, and B. Mau for maintaining the data loggers during the study period, and D. Eldridge, F. de Vries, and two anonymous reviewers for their comments and suggestions on earlier versions of this article. This research was funded by the European Research Council under the European Community’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013)/ERC Grant agreement 242658 (BIOCOM). MB was supported by a FPU fellowship from the Spanish Ministry of Education, Culture and Sports (Ref. AP2010-0759). SS was supported by the BIOCOM project. We would like to thank IMIDRA for allowing us working in its property.
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