Badger (Taxidea taxus) Disturbances Increase Soil Heterogeneity in a Degraded Shrub-Steppe Ecosystem

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In the western United States, overgrazing, weed invasion and wildfire have resulted in the conversion of shrub-steppe to annual grasslands, with substantial effects on ecosystem function. In these landscapes, badgers disturb large areas of soil while foraging for fossorial animals. Mounds created by badgers contained the lowest concentrations of total carbon, nitrogen and sulphur, mineral nitrogen and mineralizable nitrogen, inter-mound soils had the highest concentrations, and excavation pits had intermediate levels. Soil C:N ratio and pH were greater, and electrical conductivity and soluble Ca2+, Mg2+ and K+ were lower on mound soils compared with either pit or inter-mound soils. Larger pits generally trapped more litter, and increased litter mass equated with greater concentrations of active carbon, but only at the burned sites. Older mounds supported more vascular plants and cryptogamic crusts. Our results demonstrate reduced levels of nutrients and a higher C:N ratio on the mounds compared with either the pits or inter-mounds. Alteration to the homogeneous post-fire landscape by badgers contributes to patchiness in soils and vegetation, which is critical to the functioning of arid systems. Given their effect on soil C:N ratios, mounds may be important sites for recovery of indigenous shrub-steppe plant species.