Livestock grazing and aridity reduce the functional diversity of biocrusts
Background and aims
Livestock grazing and climate change are two of the most important global change drivers affecting ecosystem functioning in drylands. Grazing and climate are known to influence the cover and composition of biocrusts, which are substantial components of dryland soils globally. Much less is known, however, about how these global change drivers affect the functional diversity of biocrust communities in these ecosystems.
Here, we evaluate the role of increasing aridity and grazing intensity in driving the functional diversity of biocrusts. We collected data on multiple biocrust functional traits and community composition, recent and historic grazing intensity, and vascular plants at 151 sites from drylands in eastern Australia. We then used structural equation modelling and a fourth corner analysis to examine the combined effects of aridity and grazing on biocrust functional diversity and individual functional traits.
Aridity had a significant direct suppressive effect on biocrust functional diversity. Effects of grazing by livestock, kangaroos and rabbits on functional diversity were predominantly indirect and suppressive, mediated by a reduction in biocrust cover. Grazing did, however, promote functional diversity via an increase in vascular plant richness, with a concomitant increase in biocrust richness. The overall effect of grazing on biocrust functional diversity however was negative. Fourth corner analyses revealed that livestock grazing had a significant negative effect on the ability of biocrusts to stabilise the soil. Aridity had strong negative effects on biocrust height and their ability to absorb water and capture sediment. Few significant relationships were detected between enzyme-related traits and environmental variables.
Our findings provide novel evidence that the combination of increasing aridity and intensified livestock grazing will reduce the functional diversity and capabilities of biocrust communities, with resultant declines in ecosystem functioning.
KeywordsTrait Biological soil crust Soil crusts Ecosystem function Functional diversity Livestock Drylands
We thank Samantha Travers for helpful comments on the manuscript, and James Val, Samantha Travers, Marta Ruiz-Colmenero, James Glasier and staff from OEH, Umwelt and Ecology Australia for assistance with data collection and data entry. M.D.-B. acknowledges support from the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions of the Horizon 2020 Framework Program H2020-MSCA-IF-2016 under REA grant agreement n° 702057.
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