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Soil fungal abundance and plant functional traits drive fertile island formation in global drylands

Dryland vegetation is characterised by discrete plant patches that accumulate and capture soil resources under their canopies. These “fertile islands” are major drivers of dryland ecosystem structure and functioning, yet we lack an integrated understanding of the factors controlling their magnitude and variability at the global scale.

We conducted a standardized field survey across two hundred and thirty-six drylands from five continents. At each site, we measured the composition, diversity and cover of perennial plants. Fertile island effects were estimated at each site by comparing composite soil samples obtained under the canopy of the dominant plants and in open areas devoid of perennial vegetation. For each sample, we measured fifteen soil variables (functions) associated with carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus cycling and used the Relative Interaction Index to quantify the magnitude of the fertile island effect for each function. In eighty sites, we also measured fungal and bacterial abundance (quantitative PCR) and diversity (Illumina MiSeq).