Desert organisms lead harsh lives owing to the extreme, often unpredictable environmental conditions they endure. Climate change will likely make their existence even harsher. Predicting the ecological consequences of future climate scenarios thus requires understanding how the biota will be affected by climatic shifts. Biological soil crusts (biocrusts) are an important ecosystem component in arid lands, one that covers large portions of the landscape, improving soil stability and fertility. Because cyanobacteria are biocrust’s preeminent primary producers, eking out an existence during short pulses of precipitation, they represent a relevant global change object of study. I assessed how climate scenarios predicted for the Southwestern United States (US) will affect biocrusts using long-term, rainfall-modifying experimental set-ups that imposed either more intense drought, a seasonally delayed monsoon season, or a shift to smaller but more frequent precipitation events. I expected drought to be detrimental, but not a delay in the monsoon season. Surprisingly, both treatments showed similar effects on cyanobacterial community composition and population size after four years. While successionally incipient biocrusts were unaffected, mature biocrusts lost biomass and diversity with treatment, especially among nitrogen-fixing cyanobacteria. In separate experiments, I assessed the effect of rainfall with modified event size and frequency after a decade of treatment. Small, frequent rainfall events surprisingly enhanced the diversity and biomass of bacteria and cyanobacteria, with clear winners and losers: nitrogen-fixing Scytonema sp. benefited, while Microcoleus vaginatus lost its dominance. As an additional finding, I could also show that water addition is not always beneficial to biocrusts, calling into question the notion that these are strictly water-limited systems.
Finally, results interpretation was severely hampered by a lack of appropriate systematic treatment for an important group of biocrust cyanobacteria, the “Microcoleus steenstrupii complex”. I characterized the complex using a polyphasic approach, leading to the formal description of a new family (Porphyrosiphonaceae) of desiccation resistant cyanobacteria that includes 11 genera, of which 5 had to be newly described. Under the new framework, the distribution and abundance of biocrust cyanobacteria with respect to environmental conditions can now be understood. This body of work contributes significantly to explain current distributional patterns of biocrust cyanobacteria and to predict their fate in the face of climate change.
- Biocrust Responses to Altered Precipitation Regimes