Unassisted establishment of biological soil crusts on dryland road slopes
Understanding patterns of habitat natural recovery after human-made disturbances is critical for the conservation of ecosystems under high environmental stress, such as drylands. In particular, the unassisted establishment of nonvascular plants such as biological soil crusts or biocrust communities (e.g., soil lichens, mosses and cyanobacteria) in newly formed habitats is not yet fully understood. However, the potential of biocrusts to improve soil structure and function at the early stages of succession and promote ecosystem recovery is enormous. In this study, we evaluated the capacity of lichen biocrusts to spontaneously establish and develop on road slopes in a Mediterranean shrubland. We also compared taxonomic and functional diversity of biocrusts between road slopes and natural habitats in the surroundings. Biocrust richness and cover, species composition, and functional structure were measured in 17 road slopes (nine roadcuts and eight embankments) along a 13 km highway stretch. Topography, soil properties and vascular plant communities of road slopes were also characterized. We used Kruskal–Wallis tests and applied redundancy analysis (RDA) to test the effect of environmental scenario (road slopes vs. natural habitat) and other local factors on biocrust features. We found that biocrusts were common in road slopes after ∼20 years of construction with no human assistance needed. However, species richness and cover were still lower than in natural remnants. Also, functional structure was quite similar between roadcuts (i.e., after soil excavation) and natural remnants, and topography and soil properties influenced species composition while environmental scenario type and vascular plant cover did not. These findings further support the idea of biocrusts as promising restoration tools in drylands and confirm the critical role of edaphic factors in biocrust establishment and development in land-use change scenarios.