Climatic and Grazing Controls on Biological Soil Crust Nitrogen Fixation in Semi-arid Ecosystems

Tuesday, 16 December 2014
Stacy Gayle Schwabedissen1, Sasha Reed2, Kathleen A Lohse1 and Timothy S Magnuson1, (1)Idaho State University, Biological Sciences, Pocatello, ID, United States, (2)USGS, Southwest Biological Science Center, Canyonlands Research Station, Moab, UT, United States
Nitrogen, next to water, is believed to be the main limiting resource in arid and semi-arid ecosystems. Biological soil crusts (biocrusts) –a surface community of mosses, lichens and cyanobacteria-have been found to be the main influx of “new” nitrogen (N) into many dryland ecosystems. Controls on biocrust N fixation rates include climate (temperature and moisture), phosphorus availability, and disturbance factors such as trampling, yet a systematic examination of climatic and disturbance controls on biocrusts communities is lacking. Biocrust samples were collected along an elevation gradient in the Reynolds Creek Experimental Watershed near Murphy, Idaho. Four sites were selected from a sagebrush steppe ecosystem with precipitation ranging from ≤250mm/yr to ≥1100mm/yr. Each site included 5 grazed plots and one historic exclosure plot that has been free from grazing for more than 40 years. Five samples each were collected from under plants and from interplant spaces from the grazed plots and exclosures and analyzed for potential N fixation using an acetylene reduction assay. We hypothesized that N fixation rates would be the highest in the exclosures of the two middle sites along the elevation gradient, due to the lack of disturbance and optimal temperature and moisture, respectively. As predicted, results showed higher rates of potential N fixation in exclosures than non-exclosures at a mid-elevation 8.4 ± 3.1 kg N/ha/yr in the exclosures compared to 1.8 ± 1.5 kg N/ha/yr indicating that grazing may reduce N fixation activity. Interestingly, rates were 2-5 times lower under plant canopies compared to interplant spaces at all but the highest elevation site. Findings from our study suggest that biocrust N fixation may be a dominant input of N into theses dryland systems and, in line with our hypotheses, that climate, location within the landscape, and disturbance may interact to regulate the rates of this fundamental ecosystem process.