Frequent fire promotes diversity and cover of biological soil crusts in a derived temperate grassland

Katherine E O'Bryan, Suzanne Prober, Ian Lunt, David J. Eldridge

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17 Citations (Scopus)
51 Downloads (Pure)

Abstract

The intermediate disturbance hypothesis (IDH) predicts that species diversity is maximized at moderate disturbance levels. This model is often applied to grassy ecosystems, where disturbance can be important for maintaining vascular plant composition and diversity. However, eVects of disturbance type and frequency on cover and diversity of non-vascular plants comprising biological soil crusts are poorly known, despite their potentially important role in ecosystem function. We established replicated disturbance regimes of diVerent type (Wre vs. mowing) and frequency (2, 4, 8 yearly and unburnt) in a high-quality, representative Themeda australis'Poa sieberiana derived grassland in south-eastern Australia. EVects on soil crust bryophytes and lichens (hereafter cryptogams) were measured after 12 years. Consistent with expectations under IDH, cryptogam richness and abundance declined under no disturbance, likely due to competitive exclusion by vascular plants as well as high soil turnover by soil invertebrates beneath thick grass. Disturbance type was also signiWcant, with burning enhancing richness and abundance more than mowing. Contrary to expectations, however, cryptogam richness increased most dramatically under our most frequent and recent (2 year) burning regime, even when changes in abundance were accounted for by rarefaction analysis. Thus, from the perspective of cryptogams, 2-year burning was not an adequately severe disturbance regime to reduce diversity, highlighting the diYculty associated with expression of disturbance gradients in the application of IDH. Indeed, signiWcant correlations with grassland structure suggest that cryptogam abundance and diversity in this relatively mesic (600 mm annual rainfall) grassland is maximised by frequent Wres that reduce vegetation and litter cover, providing light, open areas and stable soil surfaces for colonisation. This contrasts with detrimental eVects of 2-year burning on native perennial grasses,indicating that this proliferation of cryptogams has potentially high functional significance for situations where vegetation cover is depleted, particularly for reducing soil erosion.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)827-838
Number of pages12
JournalOecologia
Volume159
Issue number4
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2009

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