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Biological soil crusts (BSCs) dominate the soil surface of drylands in the western United States and possess properties thought to influence local hydrology. Little agreement exists, however, on the effects of BSCs on runoff, infiltration, and evaporative rates. This study aims to improve the predictive capability of an ecohydrology model in order to understand how BSCs affect the storage, retention, and infiltration of water into soils characteristic of the Colorado Plateau. A set of soil moisture measurements obtained at a climate manipulation experiment near Moab, Utah, are used for model development and testing. Over five years, different rainfall treatments over experimental plots resulted in the development of BSC cover with different properties that influence soil moisture differently. This study used numerical simulations to isolate the relative roles of different BSC properties on the hydrologic response at the plot-scale. On-site meteorological, soil texture and vegetation property datasets are utilized as inputs into a ecohydrology model, modified to include local processes: (1) temperature-dependent precipitation partitioning, snow accumulation and melt, (2) seasonally-variable potential evapotranspiration, (3) plant species-specific transpiration factors, and (4) a new module to account for the water balance of the BSC. Soil, BSC and vegetation parameters were determined from field measurements or through model calibration to the soil moisture observations using the Shuffled Complex Evolution algorithm. Model performance is assessed against five years of soil moisture measurements at each experimental site, representing a wide range of crust cover properties. Simulation experiments were then carried out using the calibrated ecohydrology model in which BSC parameters were varied according to the level of development of the BSC, as represented by the BSC roughness. These results indicate that BSCs act to both buffer against evaporative soil moisture losses by enhancing BSC moisture evaporation and significantly alter the rates of soil water infiltration by reducing moisture storage and increasing conductivity in the BSC. The simulation results for soil water infiltration, storage and retention across a wide range of meteorological events help explain the conflicting hydrologic outcomes present in the literature on BSCs. In addition, identifying how BSCs mediate infiltration and evaporation processes has implications for dryland ecosystem function in the western United States.
Biological soil crusts (BSCs), topsoil microbial assemblages typical of arid land ecosystems, provide essential ecosystem services such as soil fertilization and stabilization against erosion. Cyanobacteria and lichens, sometimes mosses, drive BSC as primary producers, but metabolic activity is restricted to periods of hydration associated with precipitation. Climate models for the SW United States predict changes in precipitation frequency as a major outcome of global warming, even if models differ on the sign and magnitude of the change. BSC organisms are clearly well adapted to withstand desiccation and prolonged drought, but it is unknown if and how an alteration of the precipitation frequency may impact community composition, diversity, and ecosystem functions. To test this, we set up a BSC microcosm experiment with variable precipitation frequency treatments using a local, cyanobacteria-dominated, early-succession BSC maintained under controlled conditions in a greenhouse. Precipitation pulse size was kept constant but 11 different drought intervals were imposed, ranging between 416 to 3 days, during a period of 416 days. At the end of the experiments, bacterial community composition was analyzed by pyrosequencing of the 16s rRNA genes in the community, and a battery of functional assays were used to evaluate carbon and nitrogen cycling potentials. While changes in community composition were neither marked nor consistent at the Phylum level, there was a significant trend of decreased diversity with increasing precipitation frequency, and we detected particular bacterial phylotypes that responded to the frequency of precipitation in a consistent manner (either positively or negatively). A significant trend of increased respiration with increasingly long drought period was detected, but BSC could recover quickly from this effect. Gross photosynthesis, nitrification and denitrification remained essentially impervious to treatment. These results are consistent with the notion that BSC community structure adjustments sufficed to provide significant functional resilience, and allow us to predict that future alterations in precipitation frequency are unlikely to result in severe impacts to BSC biology or ecological relevance.
Biological soil crusts (BSCs) are critical components of arid and semiarid environments and provide the primary sources of bioavailable macronutrients and increase micronutrient availability to their surrounding ecosystems. BSCs are composed of a variety of microorganisms that perform a wide range of physiological processes requiring a multitude of bioessential micronutrients, such as iron, copper, and molybdenum. This work investigated the effects of BSC activity on soil solution concentrations of bioessential elements and examined the microbial production of organic chelators, called siderophores. I found that aluminum, vanadium, copper, zinc, and molybdenum were solubilized in the action of crusts, while nickel, zinc, arsenic, and zirconium were immobilized by crust activity. Potassium and manganese displayed behavior consistent with biological removal and mobilization, whereas phosphorus and iron solubility were dominated by abiotic processes. The addition of bioavailable nitrogen altered the effects of BSCs on soil element mobilization. In addition, I found that the biogeochemical activites of BSCs were limited by molybdenum, a fact that likely contributes to co-limitation by nitrogen. I confirmed the presence of siderophore producing microbes in BSCs. Siderophores are low-molecular weight organic compounds that are released by bacteria to increase element solubility and facilitate element uptake; siderophore production is likely the mechanism by which BSCs affect the patterns I observed in soil solution element concentrations. Siderophore producers were distributed across a range of bacterial groups and ecological niches within crusts, suggesting that siderophore production influences the availability of a variety of elements for use in many physiological processes. Four putative siderophore compounds were identified using electrospray ionization mass spectrometry; further attempts to characterize the compounds confirmed two true siderophores. Taken together, the results of my work provide information about micronutrient cycling within crusts that can be applied to BSC conservation and management. Fertilization with certain elements, particularly molybdenum, may prove to be a useful technique to promote BSC growth and development which would help prevent arid land degradation. Furthermore, understanding the effects of BSCs on soil element mobility could be used to develop useful biomarkers for the study of the existence and distribution of crust-like communities on ancient Earth, and perhaps other places, like Mars.