Journal article Open Access

Carbon and nitrogen fixation differ between successional stages of biological soil crusts in the Colorado Plateau and Chihuahuan Desert

Housman, D. C.; Powers, H. H.; Collins, A. D.; Belnap, J.

Biological soil crusts (cyanobacteria, mosses and lichens collectively) perform essential ecosystem services, including carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) fixation. Climate and land-use change are converting later successional soil crusts to early successional soil crusts with lower C and N fixation rates. To quantify the effect of such conversions on C and N dynamics in desert ecosystems we seasonally measured diurnal fixation rates in different biological soil crusts. We classified plots on the Colorado Plateau (Canyonlands) and Chihuahuan Desert (Jornada) as early (Microcoleus) or later successional (Nostoc/Scytonema or Placidium/Collema) and measured photosynthesis (Pn), nitrogenase activity (NA), and chlorophyll fluorescence (Fv/Fm) on metabolically active (moist) soil crusts. Later successional crusts typically had greater Pn, averaging 1.2–1.3-fold higher daily C fixation in Canyonlands and 2.4–2.8-fold higher in the Jornada. Later successional crusts also had greater NA, averaging 1.3–7.5-fold higher daily N fixation in Canyonlands and 1.3–25.0-fold higher in the Jornada. Mean daily Fv/Fm was also greater in later successional Canyonlands crusts during winter, and Jornada crusts during all seasons except summer. Together these findings indicate conversion of soil crusts back to early successional stages results in large reductions of C and N inputs into these ecosystems.

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