Biocrusts and the ecosystem services they provide are becoming more susceptible to fire as exotic annual grass invasions facilitate the spread of desert wildfires. Further, precipitation patterns across the western United States are predicted to change over the next century, and have the potential to dramatically influence fire regimes and the recovery of burned biocrusts. Despite these changes to desert fire and precipitation cycles, our understanding of post-fire biocrust recovery is limited, especially regarding the first two years after fire. To investigate biocrust recovery, we created burn manipulations (i.e., unburned and burned) and tracked crust form and function over two years in one cold and one hot desert ecosystem (UT, USA). We evaluated the entire bacterial community, but focused on Cyanobacteria species that confer soil stability and N fixation capabilities to biocrusts. Specifically, we quantified shifts in biocrust bacterial community composition using target metagenomics of 16S rDNA; monitored biocrust moss and lichen cover; measured N fixation potential; and assessed soil infiltration rates and soil stability. We found little evidence that biocrust form or function recovered from fire within two years. Based on pyrosequencing results, fire altered biocrust community composition in interspace and shrub biocrusts. Cyanobacteria species were almost completely eliminated by fire, constituting 9-21% of unburned plots and less than 0.01% of burned interspace and shrub biocrust communities. Based on cover estimates, no lichen or moss species survived the fire or recovered within two years. N fixation potentials decreased by at least six-fold in burned interspace biocrusts, representing a reduction in soil N inputs into already N-limited desert soils. Soil infiltration rates also drastically declined in burned biocrusts and remained depressed, but only remained depressed for one year. To investigate the interactions between biocrust recovery, fire, and precipitation, we nested precipitation treatments manipulating the amount of monthly rainfall (i.e., ambient, plus 30% and minus 30%) within burn treatments during the second year. Soil NH4+ was the only parameter to be affected by precipitation, and exhibited a positive relationship with precipitation magnitude at the end of one year. Our results demonstrate that fire is a strong destabilizer of the bacterial components of biocrust communities and that the ecosystem services provided by crusts recover at different rates, with N dynamics recovering more slowly than soil ecohydrology.



College and Department

Life Sciences; Plant and Wildlife Sciences



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bacterial community composition, Cyanobacteria, Firmicutes, microbial ecology, target metagenomics, 454 pyrosequencing, biocrust, fire, precipitation, desert, ecosystem services, Mojave, Great Basin