Plant and Soil

, Volume 429, Issue 1–2, pp 77–90 | Cite as

Biocrusts enhance soil fertility and Bromus tectorum growth, and interact with warming to influence germination

  • Scott FerrenbergEmail author
  • Akasha M. Faist
  • Armin Howell
  • Sasha C. Reed
Regular Article


Background and aims

Biocrusts are communities of cyanobacteria, mosses, and/or lichens found in drylands worldwide. Biocrusts are proposed to enhance soil fertility and productivity, but simultaneously act as a barrier to the invasive grass, Bromus tectorum, in western North America. Both biocrusts and B. tectorum are sensitive to climate change drivers, yet how their responses might interact to affect dryland ecosystems is unclear.


Using mesocosms with bare soil versus biocrust cover, we germinated B. tectorum seeds collected from warmed, warmed + watered, and ambient temperature plots within a long-term climate change experiment on the Colorado Plateau, USA. We characterized biocrust influences on soil fertility and grass germination, morphology, and chemistry.


Biocrusts increased soil fertility and B. tectorum biomass, specific leaf area (SLA), and root:shoot ratios. Germination rates were unaffected by mesocosm cover-type. Biocrusts delayed germination timing while also interacting with the warmed treatment to advance, and with the warmed + watered treatment to delay germination.


Biocrusts promoted B. tectorum growth, likely through positive influence on soil fertility which was elevated in biocrust mesocosms, and interacted with seed treatment-provenance to affect germination. Understanding how anticipated losses of biocrusts will affect invasion dynamics will require further investigation of how plant plasticity/adaptation to specific climate drivers interact with soil and biocrust properties.


Biocrusts Bromus tectorum Cheatgrass Drylands Nitrogen Phenotypic plasticity Provenance Soil fertility 



Our manuscript was improved by comments from two anonymous reviewers, R. Mann, and the editors. We thank Ed Grote and Robin Reibold for logistical support throughout this experiment. This work was supported by the Terrestrial Ecosystem Science Program of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Biological and Environmental Research (award DESC-0008168) and by the U.S. Geological Survey Ecosystems Mission Area. Any use of trade, firm, or product names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.

Supplementary material

11104_2017_3525_MOESM1_ESM.xlsx (11 kb)
Table S1 (XLSX 10 kb)


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Copyright information

© This is a U.S. Government work and not under copyright protection in the US; foreign copyright protection may apply 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of BiologyNew Mexico State UniversityLas CrucesUSA
  2. 2.U.S. Geological SurveySouthwest Biological Science CenterMoabUSA
  3. 3.Department of Animal and Range SciencesNew Mexico State UniversityLas CrucesUSA

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