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Microhabitat-specific differences on the composition and function of biological soil crust communities



Biological soil crusts (BSC) are key drivers of ecosystem functioning in drylands. Yet understanding their composition/function relationship is still limited due to the poor knowledge about their variability, particularly in terms of small-scale microhabitat differences.


We investigated how changes in BSC community composition (species identity and cover) affect surrogates of soil functions, such as soil erosion resistance, water dynamics and nutrient cycling, in vegetated mound and intermound microhabitats on a semi-arid shrubland of Argentina. We used a correlative approach to evaluate the composition/function relationship, and we compiled information available in the literature about species functional traits to explain the observed patterns.


Most BSC species were present in both vegetated mounds and intermounds, and variations in community composition between microhabitat were mainly related to differences in the relative cover of each species. BSC cover improved soil surface stability in both microhabitat, irrespective of the community composition. However, soil functions related to nutrient cycling and water dynamics were correlated to changes in BSC composition, varying in dependence of the cover of species of lichens and mosses characterized by different morphological, anatomical and physiological traits. Most community composition/function relationships did not differ between microhabitat.


Our results provide novel evidence that changes in BSC species and functional groups create soil heterogeneity in key soil properties and processes, and those effects are no context-dependent in terms of microhabitat. We identified some functional attributes of the species that may deserve greater attention for improving BSC functional-trait analyses in diverse natural communities.

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Biological soil crust


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Projects 04/B194 “Dinámica de nutrientes, enmiendas orgánicas y recuperación de suelos en el NO de Patagonia” and 04/U017 “Indicadores de Ambientes Sustentables y Servicios Ecosistémicos en el Periurbano Neuquino” funded by the Secretaría de Investigación, Universidad Nacional del Comahue.

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Authors and Affiliations



M.J.B. and I.A.G. designed the study; field data and samples were collected by M.J.B., N.C. and M.C.N.; microscopic analyses were done by M.J.B.; chemical laboratory analyses were done by I.A.G., M.G.P. and P.S.; M.J.B., N.C. and I.A.G. analyzed the data; I.A.G. wrote the first draft of this manuscript, and all co-authors contributed to improve it.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Irene A. Garibotti.

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The authors have no relevant financial or non-financial interests to disclose.

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Responsible Editor: Manuel Delgado-Baquerizo.

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Supplementary Information

Appendix 1

Annual climatic conditions in the study area in the Central Monte Desert of Argentina. (a) Precipitation (grey bars), air humidity (yellow dots and continuous line) and number of rainy days (black crosses and dotted line), (b) Maximum (red dots), average (black triangles) and minimum (light blue dots) temperature and number of freezing days (black crosses and dotted line). Data are monthly average values for the period between 1999 and 2019. (JPG 303 kb)

Appendix 2

Floristic composition of the vegetation community in shrub mounds and intermounds. Data are mean cover (SE) expressed as the percentage of the total area measured. (DOCX 14 kb)

Appendix 3

Results of homogeneity of slope tests between microsites in the community attributes and function relationship. “All data” represents a regression using data from both microsites, with the common slope estimate justified by the not significant comparison of slopes test. Statistically significant values are in bold (P < 0.05). (DOCX 16 kb)

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Bustos, M.J., Garibotti, I.A., Cech, N. et al. Microhabitat-specific differences on the composition and function of biological soil crust communities. Plant Soil (2022).

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  • Biocrusts
  • Soil aggregate stability
  • Soil infiltration
  • Soil nutrients
  • Functional heterogeneity
  • Spatial heterogeneity