Habitat suitability of biocrust communities in a cold desert ecosystem

TitleHabitat suitability of biocrust communities in a cold desert ecosystem
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2024
AuthorsPower, SN, Thomas, VA, Salvatore, MR, Barrett, JE
JournalEcology and Evolution
Date Published07/2024
Keywordsbiocrust, carbon, dryland, habitat suitability, remote sensing, soil ecology

Drylands are unique among terrestrial ecosystems in that they have a significant proportion of primary production facilitated by non-vascular plants such as colonial cyanobacteria, moss, and lichens, i.e., biocrusts, which occur on and in the surface soil. Biocrusts inhabit all continents, including Antarctica, an increasingly dynamic continent on the precipice of change. Here, we describe in-situ field surveying and sampling, remote sensing, and modeling approaches to assess the habitat suitability of biocrusts in the Lake Fryxell basin of Taylor Valley, Antarctica, which is the main site of the McMurdo Dry Valleys Long-Term Ecological Research Program. Soils suitable for the development of biocrusts are typically wetter, less alkaline, and less saline compared to unvegetated soils. Using random forest models, we show that gravimetric water content, electrical conductivity, and snow frequency are the top predictors of biocrust presence and biomass. Areas most suitable for the growth of dense biocrusts are soils associated with seasonal snow patches. Using geospatial data to extrapolate our habitat suitability model to the whole basin predicts that biocrusts are present in 2.7 × 105 m2 and contain 11–72 Mg of aboveground carbon, based on the 90% probability of occurrence. Our study illustrates the synergistic effect of combining field and remote sensing data for understanding the distribution and biomass of biocrusts, a foundational community in the carbon balance of this region. Extreme weather events and changing climate conditions in this region, especially those influencing snow accumulation and persistence, could have significant effects on the future distribution and abundance of biocrusts and therefore soil organic carbon storage in the McMurdo Dry Valleys.