Limestone cedar glades are a type of rock outcrop ecosystem characterized by shallow soil and extreme hydrologic conditions—seasonally ranging from xeric to saturated—that support a number of plant species of conservation concern. Although a rich botanical literature exists on cedar glades, soil biochemical processes and the ecology of soil microbial communities in limestone cedar glades have largely been ignored. This investigation documents the abiotic stress regime of this ecosystem (shallow soil, extreme hydrologic fluctuations and seasonally high soil surface temperatures) as well as soil physical and chemical characteristics, and relates both types of information to ecological structures and functions including vegetation, soil respiration, and soil microbial community metabolic profiles and diversity. Methods used in this investigation include field observations and measurements of soil physical and chemical properties and processes, laboratory analyses, and microbiological assays of soil samples.
Stress factors quantified by this research include shallow soil (depth to bedrock ranging from 2.4 to 22.6 cm), volumetric soil water content levels seasonally ranging from xeric (below 5%) to saturated (above 50%), and seasonally extreme ground-surface temperatures (above 48°C). Findings from this research indicate that spatial and temporal heterogeneity exists in limestone cedar glades in terms of abiotic stress factors and soil physical and chemical properties. Several such soil properties (e.g. soil depth, organic matter levels, pH, and particle size distribution) are spatially correlated. These soil properties were statistically related to ecological structures and functions such as vegetation patterns, soil respiration, the density of culturable heterotrophic microbes in soil and metabolic diversity of soil microbial community profiles. In general, zones within limestone cedar glades that had relatively shallow soil, alkaline pH, low levels of organic matter and high levels of silt also tended to have depressed rates of soil respiration and reduced densities and metabolic diversity of culturable heterotrophic soil microbes. Additionally, seasonally-relevant stress factors including soil water content and temperatures at or near the soil surface were related to the same set of ecological structures and functions.