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Resiliency of biological soil crusts and vascular plants varies among morphogroups with disturbance intensity

Abstract

Background and aims

Disturbance affects the ability of organisms to persist on a site, and disturbance history acts as a filter of community composition. This is true for vascular plants and morphological groups of biocrusts, which respond differently to disturbance. Although functioning arid ecosystems include both groups, filtering of morphological groups of biocrusts has not previously been compared simultaneously with the responses of vascular plants.

Methods

Using a chronosequence approach, cover of vascular plants and biocrusts was examined across chronic disturbance gradients related to invasion by exotic species and grazing by livestock, following the acute disturbance of fire using paired burned and unburned plots in Wyoming big sagebrush on 99 plots.

Results

Cover of vascular plants and biocrusts was related to disturbance more so than abiotic factors of precipitation following fire, soil chemistry, percent coarse fragment and heat load index. Over time since fire of 12–23 years, we saw recovery of early successional groups: short mosses, shallow-rooted perennial grasses and annual forbs. Cover of deep and shallow-rooted perennial grasses and annual forbs increased in cover with intermediate levels of disturbance. Perennial forbs lacked a clear relationship with disturbance. Biocrusts decreased in cover with less disturbance when compared with perennial herbaceous plants but differed in sensitivities. Tall mosses were less sensitive to disturbance compared with lichens. Short mosses increased with some disturbance.

Conclusions

Morphological groups of biocrusts and vascular plants are eliminated with increasing variability in the size of gaps between perennials represented by the standard deviation of gaps between perennials. The inclusion of both groups in assessments of ecosystem recovery following disturbance addresses the fact that recovery of either group does not happen in isolation from the other but with interacting contributions to ecosystem functions.

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Acknowledgements

This work was supported by the U.S. Geological Survey Coordinated Intermountain Restoration Project; US Forest Service, National Invasive Species Program, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Nevada State Office Joint Fire Science Project number 09-S-02-1. Authors thank D. Hernandez, D. Howard, S. Lynch, L. McCaughey, for help with data collection of this study. T. Wirth and K. Knutson helped with logistics and use of data from the larger study. C. Catricala gave guidance related to soil analysis methods. We thank S. McIlroy, B. Leger and three anonymous reviewers for their reviews of the manuscript. Any use of trade, product or firm names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.

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LAC and DAP wrote the paper. LAC conceived the study and analyzed the data.

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Correspondence to Lea A. Condon.

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Responsible Editor: Rafael S. Oliveira.

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Condon, L.A., Pyke, D.A. Resiliency of biological soil crusts and vascular plants varies among morphogroups with disturbance intensity. Plant Soil 433, 271–287 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11104-018-3838-8

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Keywords

  • Bromus tectorum
  • Disturbance
  • Fire
  • Lichens
  • Livestock grazing
  • Short moss
  • Tall moss