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Patterns and controls on nitrogen cycling of biological soil crusts

May 22, 2016

Biocrusts play a significant role in the nitrogen [N ] cycle within arid and semi-arid ecosystems, as they contribute major N inputs via biological fixation and dust capture, harbor internal N transformation processes, and direct N losses via N dissolved, gaseous and erosional loss processes (Fig. 1). Because soil N availability in arid and semi-arid ecosystems is generally low and may limit net primary production (NPP), especially during periods when adequate water is available, understanding the mechanisms and controls of N input and loss pathways in biocrusts is critically important to our broader understanding of N cycling in dryland environments. In particular, N cycling by biocrusts likely regulates short-term soil N availability to support vascular plant growth, as well as long-term N accumulation and maintenance of soil fertility.
In this chapter, we review the influence of biocrust nutrient input, internal cycling, and loss pathways across a range of biomes. We examine linkages between N fixation capabilities of biocrust organisms and spatio-temporal patterns of soil N availability that may influence the longer-term productivity of dryland ecosystems. Lastly, biocrust influence on N loss pathways such as N gas loss, leakage of N compounds from biocrusts, and transfer in wind and water erosion are important to understand the maintenance of dryland soil fertility over longer time scales. Although great strides have been made in understanding the influence of biocrusts on ecosystem N cycling, there are important knowledge gaps in our understanding of the influence of biocrusts on ecosystem N cycling that should be the focus of future studies. Because work on the interaction of N cycling and biocrusts was reviewed in Belnap and Lange (2003), this chapter will focus primarily on research findings that have emerged over the last 15 years (2000-2015).