Functional profiles reveal unique ecological roles of various biological soil crust organisms

Matthew A. Bowker*, Rebecca L. Mau, Fernando T. Maestre, Cristina Escolar, Andrea P. Castillo-Monroy

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

110 Scopus citations


1. At the heart of the body of research on biodiversity effects on ecosystem function is the debate over whether different species tend to be functionally singular or redundant. When we consider ecosystem multi-function, the provision of multiple ecosystem functions simultaneously, we may find that seemingly redundant species may in fact play unique roles in ecosystems. 2. Over the last few decades, the significance of biological soil crusts (BSCs) as ecological boundaries and ecosystem engineers, and their multi-functional nature, has become increasingly well documented. We compiled 'functional profiles' of the organisms in this understudied community, to determine whether functional singularity emerges when multiple ecosystem functions are considered. 3. In two data sets, one representing multiple sites around the semi-arid regions of Spain (regional scale), and another from a single site in central Spain (local scale), we examined correlations between the abundance or frequency of BSC species in a community, and multiple surrogates of ecosystem functioning. There was a wide array of apparent effects of species on specific functions. 4. Notably, in gypsiferous soils and at regional scale, we found that indicators of carbon (C) and phosphorus cycling were apparently suppressed and promoted by the lichens Diploschistes diacapsis and Squamarina lentigera, respectively. The moss Pleurochaete squarrosa appears to promote C cycling in calcareous soils at this spatial scale. At the local scale in gypsiferous soils, D. diacapsis positively correlated with carbon cycling, but negatively with nitrogen cycling, whereas numerous lichens exhibited the opposite profile. 5. We found a high degree of functional singularity, i.e. that species were highly individualistic in their effects on multiple functions. Many functional attributes were not easily predictable from existing functional grouping systems based primarily on morphology. 6. Our results suggest that maintaining species-rich BSC communities is crucial to maintain the overall functionality of ecosystems dominated by these organisms, and that dominance and the outcome of competition could be highly influential in the determination of such functionality.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)787-795
Number of pages9
JournalFunctional Ecology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 2011


  • Arid and semi-arid
  • Bryophytes
  • Ecosystem function
  • Enzyme activities
  • Lichens
  • Trait diversity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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