Are biological effects of desert shrubs more important than physical effects on soil microorganisms?
Vegetation cover plays a major role in providing organic matter and in acting as a physical barrier, with both together contributing to the formation of "fertile islands," which play an active role in prolonging biological activity in desert ecosystems. By undertaking this study, a longterm research, we designed an experiment to separate the two components-the physical and biotic parts of the perennial plants-and to identify the factor that contributes the most to the ecosystem. The study site was located in the northern Negev Desert, Israel, where 50 Hammada scoparia shrubs and 50 artificial plants were randomly marked. Soil samples were collected monthly over 3 years of research at three locations: under the canopy of H. scoparia shrubs, in the vicinity of the artificial plants, and between the shrubs (control). The contribution to microbial activity was measured by evaluation of the microbial community functions in soil. The functional aspects of the microbial community that were measured were CO2 evolution, microbial biomass, microbial functional diversity, and the physiological profile of the community. The results of this study are presented in two ways: (1) according to the three locations/treatments; and (2) according to the phenological situation of the vegetation (annual and perennial plants) in the research field: the growing phase, the drying process, and the absence of annual plants. The only parameters that were found to affect microbial activity were the contribution of the organic matter of perennial shrubs and the growth of vegetation (annual and perennial) during the growing seasons. The physical component was found to have no effect on soil microbial functional diversity, which elucidates the important contribution of the desert shrub in enhancing biological multiplicity and activity.