Biological soil crusts determine the germination and growth of two exotic plants.
In arid and semiarid ecosystems, the potential threats of exotic invasive species are enhanced due to increasing human activities. Biological soil crusts (BSCs), acting as arid ecosystem engineers, may play an important role in preventing the establishment of exotic invasive plants. Our goal was to examine whether BSCs could inhibit the establishment of probable exotic plant species originating from adjacent grasslands located along the southeast edge of the Tengger Desert. In our study, we investigated the effects of three BSC types (cyanobacteria, lichen, and moss crusts) under two disturbance conditions (intact and disturbed) on the establishment of two exotic plant species (Ceratoides latens and Setaria viridis) using indoor experiments. We found both negative and positive effects of BSCs on the establishment of the two exotic plant species. Compared with the disturbed BSCs, the germination percentages of C. latens and S. viridis were reduced by 54% to 87% and 89% to 93%, respectively, in intact BSCs. In contrast, BSCs significantly promoted the height growth and aboveground biomass of the two exotic plant species (p<.05) by enhancing the soil water and nutrient availability for the exotic plants. Our results confirm that BSCs strongly suppress the rapid expansion of exotic plant populations by inhibiting germination of seed with big size or appendages and have a weak inhibitory effect on exotic plant with small and smooth seeds. This may decrease the threat of propagation of exotic species. In the meantime, BSCs promote the growth of a few successful engraftment seedlings, which increased the beta diversity. Our work suggests that better understanding the two opposing effects of BSCs on the establishment of exotic plant species in different growth stages (germination and growth) is important for maintaining the health and stability of revegetated regions.