Wildfire-resistant biological soil crusts and fire-induced loss of soil stability in Palouse prairies, USA

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Applied Soil Ecology





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Frequent low-intensity fires are a natural component of the ecology of the Palouse prairies of northwestern North America. To study the effects of fire upon biological soil crusts (BSCs) occurring in these grasslands, we sampled three burned (in 2000) sites and three unburned sites in the Hell’s Canyon area (OR, USA) ∼1 year post-fire. We measured vascular plant and BSC cover, soil microbe pigmentation, texture and chemistry, and soil surface physical properties (stability and rugosity). Festuca idahoensis was two times more abundant in unburned plots (P=0.0006), and vascular plant and litter cover were generally higher in unburned plots. At the community scale, there was no difference in the lichen and moss species composition, suggesting much less drastic effects of fire on BSCs than reported in other systems. Soil surface stability (measured using slake value) was significantly lower in burned sites than unburned sites (median value=5 versus 6, P=0.008), a result which is likely due to the greater density of lichens and mosses encountered in the unburned plots. Soil microbe pigmentation was lower in burned plots (P=0.03), suggesting that the biomass of photosynthetic microbes had decreased; however, the presence of intra- and extracellular pigments in burned soils indicates that microorganisms were not eradicated. Pigments most strongly associated with cyanobacteria were more abundant in unburned sites, suggesting that cyanobacteria may have been more strongly impacted by the fire than other BSC components. Composition of nutrients and surface rugosity did not differ significantly between treatments. We hypothesize that Palouse prairie soil crusts are relatively resistant to wildfire because of low fire intensity and their occupation of space away from the vascular plant fuel load.


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