Life under quartz: Hypolithic mosses in the Mojave Desert

Syntrichia caninervis growing on the soil surface and as a hypolithic under a milky quartz rock in the Mojave Desert.


Several species of dryland cyanobacteria are known to occur as hypoliths under semi-translucent rocks. In the Mojave Desert, these organisms find refuge from intense solar radiation under milky quartz where moisture persists for a longer period of time than in adjacent soil surface habitat. Desert mosses, which are extremely desiccation-tolerant, can also occur in these hypolithic spaces, though little is known about this unique moss microhabitat and how species composition compares to that of adjacent soil surface communities. To address this question, we deployed microclimate dataloggers and collected moss samples from under and adjacent to 18 milky quartz rocks (quartz mean center thickness 26 ± 15 mm) in a western high elevation Mojave Desert site. Light transmission through Mojave quartz rocks may be as low as 1.2{%}, and data from microclimate loggers deployed for five months support the hypothesis that quartz provides thermal buffering and higher relative humidity compared to the soil surface. Of the 53 samples collected from hypolith and surface microhabitats, 68{%} were Syntrichia caninervis, the dominant bryophyte of the Mojave Desert biological soil crust. Tortula inermis accounted for 28{%} of the samples and 4{%} were Bryum argenteum. In a comparison of moss community composition, we found that S. caninervis was more likely to be on the soil surface, though it was abundant in both microhabitats, while T. inermis was more restricted to hypoliths, perhaps due to protection from temperature extremes. In our study site, the differences between hypolithic and surface microhabitats enable niche partitioning between T. inermis and S. caninervis, enhancing alpha diversity. This work points to the need to thoroughly consider microhabitats when assessing bryophyte species diversity and modelling species distributions. This focus is particularly important in extreme environments, where mosses may find refuge from the prevailing macroclimatic conditions in microhabitats such as hypoliths.