Climate change and physical disturbance cause similar community shifts in biological soil crusts

Scott Ferrenberg, Sasha C. Reed, Jayne Belnap, William H. Schlesinger

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

217 Scopus citations


Biological soil crusts (biocrusts) - communities of mosses, lichens, cyanobacteria, and heterotrophs living at the soil surface - are fundamental components of drylands worldwide, and destruction of biocrusts dramatically alters biogeochemical processes, hydrology, surface energy balance, and vegetation cover. Although there has been long-standing concern over impacts of physical disturbances on biocrusts (e.g., trampling by livestock, damage from vehicles), there is increasing concern over the potential for climate change to alter biocrust community structure. Using long-term data from the Colorado Plateau, we examined the effects of 10 y of experimental warming and altered precipitation (in full-factorial design) on biocrust communities and compared the effects of altered climate with those of long-term physical disturbance (>10 y of replicated human trampling). Surprisingly, altered climate and physical disturbance treatments had similar effects on biocrust community structure. Warming, altered precipitation frequency [an increase of small (1.2 mm) summer rainfall events], and physical disturbance from trampling all promoted early successional community states marked by dramatic declines in moss cover and increases in cyanobacteria cover, with more variable effects on lichens. Although the pace of community change varied significantly among treatments, our results suggest that multiple aspects of climate change will affect biocrusts to the same degree as physical disturbance. This is particularly disconcerting in the context of warming, as temperatures for drylands are projected to increase beyond those imposed as treatments in our study.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)12116-12121
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number39
StatePublished - Sep 29 2015


  • Alternate states
  • Biocrusts
  • Community structure
  • Secondary succession
  • Warming


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