Biodiversity and Ecosystem Functioning of High-Arctic Biological Soil Crusts

This project studies the role of environmental factors on the microbial diversity of High-Arctic Biological Soil Crusts (BSCs) and their role in nitrogen and phosphorous cycling in regions in Svalbard differing in their lithology, weathering, and mineralogy.

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Project type

  • field work


  • terrestrial biology

Project Keywords

  • biosphere / terrestrial ecosystems / alpine/tundra
  • biosphere / microbiota taxonomy / bacteria

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Biological Soil Crusts (BSCs) dominate primary production in arid and semi-arid regions . In the High Arctic, BSCs are the main food source for many terrestrial vertebrates and the first colonizers of land surfaces which emerge after glacial retreat. BSCs are of global biogeochemical significance as they account for about half of the atmospheric nitrogen fixation on land. BSCs are also important ecosystem engineers and drive many other processes, such as soil stabilisation, water infiltration, and soil temperature regulation through the interaction between minerals, cellular filaments and organic polymers forming 3-dimensional mat-like structures. Importantly, BSCs facilitate the colonization by higher plants, by providing nutrients and carbon to the soils, and promoting seed germination. Given that global warming is amplified in the Arctic and results in a widespread and often dramatic melting of glaciers, ice caps and snow banks, BSCs are predicted to facilitate the greening of the Arctic; a phenomenon which is associated with increased biomass coverage by BSCs and the subsequent succession by shrub tundra. Coupled climate-vegetation models predict an extremely widespread potential redistribution and expansion of vegetation across the Arctic, with at least half of the vegetated areas shifting to a different physiognomic state. Global climate-vegetation models are inherently coarse-grained. Their predictive ability, however, also depends on how well micro- and mesoscale variation in BSC biomass and function can be estimated. BSCs are typically dominated to a varying degree by eukaryotic microalgae, Cyanobacteria, lichens and mosses. To date, however, only few biodiversity-ecosystem function assessments focussed on High-Arctic BSCs, but those that do exist suggest a close link with the type, age, and geochemical composition of the underlying substratum soils. While recent work revealed that on nitrogen (N) rich metasedimentary rocks the N-content of forest soils and plant material is more than 50% higher compared with vegetation situated on N-poor igneous parent material, the extent to which the bedrock type influences the N-content and cycling in polar BSCs is completely unknown. We hypothesize that on N-poor igneous rocks, cyanobacteria which are able to fix atmospheric N2 are more abundant than eukaryotic microalgae. By contrast, on N-rich sedimentary rocks, a relatively higher abundance of eukaryotic microalgae can be expected. The overall aim of this proposal is to map the distribution of High-Arctic Biological Soil Crust communities in Svalbard, document their microbial biodiversity and measure key ecosystem functions, with a particular focus on linking small and medium scale patchiness in BSC biodiversity and function to their substratum soils, moisture availability and soil age. The specific objectives are to: (1) Develop high-resolution spatial maps of BSCs in regions with contrasting bedrock geology in High-Arctic polar desert biomes in Svalbard using images taken by drones and a multispectral ground-truthing camera. Svalbard is ideally suited for this purpose, given its high geological diversity at a relatively small spatial scale; (2) Study the micro- and mesoscale patterns in biodiversity and structure of microbial communities using a polyphasic approach including marker pigments and DNA-based assessments, and link these to environmental variability. This information will be used to calibrate the images from the drone and the multispectral camera to generate a cost-efficient method for upscaling and region-wide inventories of BSC cover and composition in other Arctic polar desert biomes; (3) Study the dynamics and the functional genes in a selection of BSCs which are situated on different bedrock types and are hence expected to differ in their functional attributes, with a particular focus on genes and pathways involved in the N and P-cycles.

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