The term biological soil crust (or biocrust) encompasses the diverse community of moss, algae, lichens, and cyanobacteria living within the top inch of soil. Biocrusts form in all terrestrial ecotypes, but people often overlook them in favor of larger species. Biocrusts stabilize the soil by aggregation, reducing erosion. They increase soil fertility by enhancing nutrient cycling. A healthy biocrust increases infiltration and plays a role in succession towards a diverse and functioning ecosystem. They are especially important in arid and semi-arid ecosystems.
Towards the goal of restoring land to healthy ecosystem function, we consider all facets of the land, not just the vascular plants that may inhabit it. Unaided, biocrusts may take from decades to a century to reestablish after degradation. We would like to determine the most effective and practical methods to restore biological soil crusts.
Research and updates found here include projects on moss, lichens, and biocrust as we delve into this charismatic and important part of the ecosystem.
Plants live in tight association with microbes, especially belowground where fungi and bacteria live on and inside the roots of plants. The relationship can be beneficial or harmful to the plant. Some microbes cause plant diseases by decomposing roots. Others trade nutrients with the roots in return for sugars produced aboveground by leaves.
We investigate two main aspects of the relationship between plants and microbes in the soil. First, as it pertains to weeds, we want to know if soil microbes can help or hinder plant invasions. Three highly invasive weeds of contrasting life history strategies; cheatgrass, knapweed and leafy spurge, co-occur with remnants of native plant vegetation. This creates a unique opportunity to observe, characterize, and manipulate interactions between plants and belowground microbial communities. We outline a number of short, intermediate and long-term research projects that will significantly enhance our knowledge regarding plant microbe interactions and soil processes, with the overall goal to better understand, predict and counteract plant invasions, and to restore and manage invaded ecosystems.
Second, we seek to understand how the relationship between plants and soil influences the function of ecosystem processes. Soil microbes are responsible for organic matter decomposition and nutrient cycling between the atmosphere and the land. On this project we collaborate with the Earth Microbiome Project (EMP). The goal is to map and understand the diversity of microorganisms in habitats around the world. We mapped microbial diversity and function across gradients of weed invasions.
Humans have exerted a major influence on plant communities across MPG Ranch that began with fires set by the Native American and continued with intensive livestock grazing, farming, and herbicide applications. The overall result of these activities is that low diversity and low productivity plant communities composed mainly of non-native plants cover many areas. In many cases the existing undesired vegetation is hardy and resistant to replacement, after all it is the stuff that has survived grazing, herbicide applications, and the ranch’s harsh climate. The updates and reports in this section show the approaches we take to figure out the best ways to restore diverse and productive plant communities. The Restoration Map under the maps heading is the best way to explore our restoration work. The map interface allows researchers to explain our methods and research in a chronological and spatial context. Abstracts and links to major updates and plans will be visible on this page.
Rangeland diversification- In some cases we use herbicide applications combined with fire and drill seeding to establish new communities.
Assisted Succession- We have also developed a new approach to restoration of weedy areas using a naturally herbicide resistant initial plant to reclaim weed infestations. The plant is called sainfoin. It is a legume that enriches the soil and allows us to kill-off the weeds seed bank before we re-plant.
Jeff Clarke's Field Note shows bridge demolition, a muskrat, fall showers, and mushrooms.
03-21-14 Field Note
02-12-15 Field Note