Plant and Soil

, Volume 429, Issue 1–2, pp 65–75 | Cite as

Biocrust morphology is linked to marked differences in microbial community composition

  • Angela M. Chilton
  • Brett A. Neilan
  • David J. EldridgeEmail author
Regular Article


Background and aims

Biocrust morphology is often used to infer ecological function, but morphologies vary widely in pigmentation and thickness. Little is known about the links between biocrust morphology and the composition of constituent microbial community. This study aimed to examine these links using dryland crusts varying in stage and morphology.


We compared the microbial composition of three biocrust developmental stages (Early, Mid, Late) with bare soil (Bare) using high Miseq Illumina sequencing. We used standard diversity measures and network analysis to explore how microbe-microbe associations changed with biocrust stage.


Biocrust richness and diversity increased with increasing stage, and there were marked differences in the microbial signatures among stages. Bare and Late stages were dominated by Alphaproteobacteria, but Cyanobacteria was the dominant phylum in Early and Mid stages. The greatest differences in microbial taxa were between Bare and Late stages. Network analysis indicated highly-connected hubs indicative of small networks.


Our results indicate that readily discernible biocrust features may be good indicators of microbial composition and structure. These findings are important for land managers seeking to use biocrusts as indicators of ecosystem health and function. Treating biocrusts as a single unit without considering crust stage is likely to provide misleading information on their functional roles.


Cyanobacteria Network analysis Biological soil crust Semi-arid, microbial ecology Drylands Soil function 



We thank Angela E. Chilton for assistance with sample collection, Jason Woodhouse for assistance with the network analysis and Samantha Travers for comments on the manuscript. Angela M. Chilton was supported by an Australian Post-Graduate Award.

Supplementary material

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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Angela M. Chilton
    • 1
  • Brett A. Neilan
    • 1
    • 2
  • David J. Eldridge
    • 3
    Email author
  1. 1.Australian Centre for Astrobiology and School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular SciencesUniversity of New South WalesSydneyAustralia
  2. 2.School of Environmental and Life SciencesUniversity of NewcastleCallaghanAustralia
  3. 3.Centre for Ecosystem Science, School of Biological, Earth and Environmental SciencesUniversity of New South WalesSydneyAustralia

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