The 'fertile island effect' of Welwitschia plants on soil microbiota is influenced by plant gender

Tirza Doniger, Jonathan M. Adams, Eugene Marais, Gillian Maggs-Kölling, Chen Sherman, Dorsaf Kerfahi, Ying Yang, Yosef Steinberger

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7 Scopus citations


Desert and semi-desert plants are often associated with a distinct soil biota under the plants and close to the root system. We aimed to understand if similar effects could be found in the taxonomically isolated desert gymnosperm Welwitschia mirabilis in the Namib Desert, and whether this island effect varied with climate and with gender of plants. We took soil cores adjacent to the plants in environments ranging from extreme desert to arid shrubland, and in nearby control sites between the plants. Soil chemistry was analysed, and deoxyribonucleic acid was extracted and sequenced for the bacterial 16s region. Soil under the plants was richer in organic C, N and moisture. Despite the range of climates, the soil around Welwitschia plants was consistently associated with a particular bacterial community composition that was distinct from samples further away. Compared to unvegetated control patches, bacterial diversity close to the plants was reduced. In the plant-associated soil community, there was a clear gender effect across all sites with a distinct community composition and greater diversity under male plants. It is unclear what differences in the soil environment might be producing these gender-associated differences, which provide an additional dimension to the fertile island effect.

Original languageEnglish
Article numberfiaa186
JournalFEMS Microbiology Ecology
Issue number11
StatePublished - 1 Nov 2020

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2020.


  • Microbial diversity
  • Namibian desert
  • Plant gender
  • Welwitschia mirabilis


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