Articles | Volume 15, issue 7
Biogeosciences, 15, 2149–2159, 2018

Special issue: Biological soil crusts and their role in biogeochemical processes...

Biogeosciences, 15, 2149–2159, 2018

Research article 10 Apr 2018

Research article | 10 Apr 2018

Wet season cyanobacterial N enrichment highly correlated with species richness and Nostoc in the northern Australian savannah

Wendy Williams1, Burkhard Büdel2, and Stephen Williams1 Wendy Williams et al.
  • 1School of Agriculture and Food Sciences, The University of Queensland, Gatton 4343, Australia
  • 2Dept. of Biology, University of Kaiserslautern, Kaiserslautern, Germany

Abstract. The Boodjamulla National Park research station is situated in the north-western Queensland dry savannah, where the climate is dominated by summer monsoons and virtually dry winters. Under shrub canopies and in between the tussock grasses cyanobacterial crusts almost entirely cover the flood plain soil surfaces. Seasonality drives N fixation, and in the savannah this has a large impact on both plant and soil function. Many cyanobacteria fix dinitrogen that is liberated into the soil in both inorganic and organic N forms. We examined cyanobacterial species richness and bioavailable N spanning 7 months of a typical wet season. Over the wet season cyanobacterial richness ranged from 6 to 19 species. N-fixing Scytonema accounted for seasonal averages between 51 and 93 % of the biocrust. Cyanobacterial richness was highly correlated with N fixation and bioavailable N in 0–1 cm. Key N-fixing species such as Nostoc, Symploca and Gloeocapsa significantly enriched soil N although Nostoc was the most influential. Total seasonal N fixation by cyanobacteria demonstrated the variability in productivity according to the number of wet days as well as the follow-on days where the soil retained adequate moisture. Based on total active days per month we estimated that N soil enrichment via cyanobacteria would be  ∼  5.2 kg ha−1 annually which is comparable to global averages. This is a substantial contribution to the nutrient-deficient savannah soils that are almost entirely reliant on the wet season for microbial turnover of organic matter. Such well-defined seasonal trends and synchronisation in cyanobacterial species richness, N fixation, bioavailable N and C fixation (Büdel et al., 2018) provide important contributions to multifunctional microprocesses and soil fertility.

Short summary
The northern Australian savannah grasslands encompass 1.5 million square kilometres, where naturally occurring cyanobacteria cover the soil surface. During the wet season, photosynthetic cyanobacteria continually absorb nitrogen from the air and produce a nutrient-rich slime. This bioactive slime formed a protective biofilm on the soil in-between grass plants and provided nitrogen in a plant-available form. Cyanobacterial species richness increased biofertilisation and boosted soil fertility.
Final-revised paper