Cyanobacterial ecology across environmental gradients and spatial scales in China's hot and cold deserts

Kimberley A. Warren-Rhodes, Kevin L. Rhodes, Linda Ng Boyle, Stephen B. Pointing, Yong Chen, Shuangjiang Liu, Peijin Zhuo, Christopher P. McKay

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Lithic photoautotrophic communities function as principal primary producers in the world's driest deserts, yet many aspects of their ecology remain unknown. This is particularly true for Asia, where some of the Earth's oldest and driest deserts occur. Using methods derived from plant landscape ecology, we measured the abundance and spatial distribution of cyanobacterial colonization on quartz stony pavement across environmental gradients of rainfall and temperature in the isolated Taklimakan and Qaidam Basin deserts of western China. Colonization within available habitat ranged from 0.37±0.16% to 12.6±1.8%, with cold dry desert sites exhibiting the lowest abundance. Variation between sites was most strongly correlated with moisture-related variables and was independent of substrate availability. Cyanobacterial communities were spatially aggregated at multiple scales in patterns distinct from the underlying rock pattern. Site-level differences in cyanobacterial spatial pattern (e.g. mean inter-patch distance) were linked with rainfall, whereas patchiness within sites was correlated with local geology (greater colonization frequency of large rocks) and biology (dispersal during rainfall). We suggest that cyanobacterial patchiness may also in part be self-organized - that is, an outcome of soil water-biological feedbacks. We propose that landscape ecology concepts and models linking desert vegetation, biological feedbacks and ecohydrological processes are applicable to microbial communities.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)470-482
Number of pages13
JournalFEMS Microbiology Ecology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2007


  • Hyperarid desert
  • Hypolithic
  • Landscape ecology
  • Patchiness
  • Photoautotrophs
  • Trigger-transfer-response-pulse framework

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Microbiology
  • Ecology
  • Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology


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