Hydrology in a patterned landscape is co-engineered by soil-disturbing animals and biological crusts

Matthew A. Bowker, David J. Eldridge, James Val, Santiago Soliveres

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

57 Scopus citations


Water redistribution has a profound influence on dryland ecosystem function. This hydrological function is largely regulated by ecosystem engineers including biological soil crusts (biocrusts) which produce run-off, and burrowing animals, such as the greater bilby, whose pits capture water. We estimated the relative importance of these two ecosystem engineers in determining infiltration rates in a system where dune slopes shed water to adjacent interdune swales to maximize overall productivity. Also, we determined which biocrust property was most hydrologically important: total cover, composition, patch aggregation or spatial heterogeneity. While both biocrusts and burrowing animals equally affected the overall infiltration through macro- and micropores (under ponding), only biocrusts were important for the infiltration specifically via micropores (under tension). Of the studied biocrust properties, community composition was the strongest influence such that the greater the prevalence of early successional biocrust patches, the greater the infiltration rate. Greater total cover of biocrusts reduced infiltration, and the spatial properties were relatively unimportant. Although bilbies and biocrusts comparably influenced infiltration under ponding at the microscale, realistic cover of bilby pits at the landscape scale is unlikely to strongly impair the hydrological function of dunes. Reintroduction of the endangered bilby may enhance nutrient cycling and plant recruitment via its seed and resource capturing pits, without a concomitant disruption of hydrological function. In contrast, removal of biocrusts caused by, e.g., livestock trampling, is expected to strongly enhance infiltration in the run-off areas, strongly reducing ecosystem productivity at the landscape scale.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)14-22
Number of pages9
JournalSoil Biology and Biochemistry
StatePublished - Jun 2013


  • Animal burrowing
  • Arid and semi-arid
  • Bilby
  • Bryophytes
  • Cyanobacteria
  • Ecosystem function
  • Infiltration
  • Lichens
  • Run-off
  • Water redistribution

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Microbiology
  • Soil Science


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