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Nitrogenase activity by biological soil crusts in cold sagebrush steppe ecosystems

Abstract

In drylands worldwide, biological soil crusts (BSC) form a thin photosynthetic cover across landscapes, and provide vital benefits in terms of stabilizing soil and fixing nitrogen (N) and carbon (C). Numerous studies have examined the effects of climate and disturbance on BSC functions; however, few have characterized these responses in rolling BSCs typical of northern ecosystems in the Intermountain West, US. With temperature increases and shifts in precipitation projected, it is unclear how BSCs in this region will respond to climate change, and how the response could affect their capacity to perform key ecosystem functions, such as providing ‘new’ N through biological N2 fixation. To address this important knowledge gap, we examined nitrogenase activity (NA) associated with rolling BSCs along a climatic gradient in southwestern Idaho, US, and quantified how acetylene reduction rates changed as a function of climate, grazing (using exclosures), and shrub-canopy association. Results show that warmer, drier climates at lower elevations hosted greater cover of late successional BSC communities (e.g., mosses and lichens), and higher NA compared with colder, wetter climates at higher elevations. Highest NA (0.5–29.3 µmol C2H4 m−2 h−1) occurred during the early summer/spring, when water was more available than in late summer/autumn. Activity was strongly associated with soil characteristics including pH and ammonium concentrations suggesting these characteristics as potentially strong controls on NA in BSCs. The relationship between grazing and NA varied with elevation. Specifically, lower elevation sites had lower NA at grazed locations, whereas higher elevation sites had higher NA with grazing. At both low and high ends of the elevation gradient, shrub-canopy associated BSCs maintained two to three times higher NA compared to BSCs in the interspace among shrubs. Taken together, our findings indicate that the controls and rates of NA in BSCs vary seasonally and strongly with climate in the Intermountain West, and that drier springs are likely to influence rates of NA more than warmer summers.

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Acknowledgements

This study was conducted in collaboration and cooperation with the United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service Northwest Watershed Research in Boise, Idaho and landowners within the Reynolds Creek Critical Zone Observatory. Support for this research was provided by NSF for Reynolds Creek Critical Zone Observatory (NSF EAR 1331872), the Geological Society of America (GSA), the U.S Geological Survey Ecosystems Mission Area, and U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research Terrestrial Ecosystem Sciences Program (DE-SC-0008168). Support for SG Schwabedissen was also provided by the ISU Center for Ecological Research and Education. Special thanks to H Smith for her assistance and advice and to A Howell and T Torres Cruz. We appreciate the field and laboratory assistance of N Patton, E McCorkle, H Sharma, E Blay, D Huber, and S Parsons. We are also grateful to Jayne Belnap and two anonymous reviewers for suggestions on a previous version of the manuscript that significantly improved the paper. Any use of trade, firm, or product names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.

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Correspondence to Kathleen A. Lohse.

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Schwabedissen, S.G., Lohse, K.A., Reed, S.C. et al. Nitrogenase activity by biological soil crusts in cold sagebrush steppe ecosystems. Biogeochemistry 134, 57–76 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10533-017-0342-9

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Keywords

  • Acetylene reduction
  • Biological soil crusts
  • Cold steppe ecosystems
  • Critical zone
  • Critical zone observatory
  • Grazing
  • Nitrogenase activity
  • Reynolds Creek Experimental Watershed
  • Reynolds Creek Critical Zone Observatory