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Jung, Patrick, Baumann, Karen, Lehnert, Lukas W., Samolov, Elena, Achilles, Sebastian, Schermer, Michael, Wraase, Luise M., Eckhardt, Kai-Uwe, Bader, Maaike Y., Leinweber, Peter, Karsten, Ulf, Bendix, Jörg and Buedel, Burkhard (2019): Desert breath-How fog promotes a novel type of soil biocenosis, forming the coastal Atacama Desert's living skin. In: Geobiology

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The Atacama Desert is the driest non-polar desert on Earth, presenting precarious conditions for biological activity. In the arid coastal belt, life is restricted to areas with fog events that cause almost daily wet-dry cycles. In such an area, we discovered a hitherto unknown and unique ground covering biocenosis dominated by lichens, fungi, and algae attached to grit-sized (similar to 6 mm) quartz and granitoid stones. Comparable biocenosis forming a kind of a layer on top of soil and rock surfaces in general is summarized as cryptogamic ground covers (CGC) in literature. In contrast to known CGC from arid environments to which frequent cyclic wetting events are lethal, in the Atacama Desert every fog event is answered by photosynthetic activity of the soil community and thus considered as the desert's breath. Photosynthesis of the new CGC type is activated by the lowest amount of water known for such a community worldwide thus enabling the unique biocenosis to fulfill a variety of ecosystem services. In a considerable portion of the coastal Atacama Desert, it protects the soil from sporadically occurring splash erosion and contributes to the accumulation of soil carbon and nitrogen as well as soil formation through bio-weathering. The structure and function of the new CGC type are discussed, and we suggest the name grit-crust. We conclude that this type of CGC can be expected in all non-polar fog deserts of the world and may resemble the cryptogam communities that shaped ancient Earth. It may thus represent a relevant player in current and ancient biogeochemical cycling.

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