Behind the scenes of the Maestre lab (V): Miguel Berdugo on how biocrusts and plants modulate soil wetting and drying dynamics

We continue with the series of posts describing the “behind the scenes” of the research presented in the articles we publish (you can find the previous posts of this series here, here, here and here). Today we will talk about a paper recently published in Ecosystems entitled “Vascular plants and biocrusts modulate how abiotic factors affect wetting and drying events in drylands”, led by our graduate student Miguel Berdugo. This is the first paper of Miguel as a first author, so it is a very special one for him! The data used in this article are also available from figshare.

Miguel Berdugo, the lead author of this paper

These are the Q & A for Miguel:

What is this paper about?

Using the nice and continuous soil moisture datasets available from ongoing experiments at the Aranjuez Experimental Station, in this article we tried to elucidate how major biotic components of drylands (grasses, shrubs and biocrusts) modulate the importance of abiotic factors (temperature, rainfall amount and rainfall intensity) as drivers of soil wetting and drying dynamics after rainfall events.

What are the key messages of this article?

The key message of this article is that vascular plants and biocrusts change the way in which abiotic factors affect soil water dynamics. They perform this control differently but with the same importance and, sometimes, in really complex ways. For instance, promoting controls through abiotic drivers in opposite directions over the soil water dynamics at the same time.

How did you come up with the idea of conducting this study?

We at the lab have been measuring soil moisture continuously for years in Spain at different microsites (shrubs, grasses, open areas without visible biocrust components and open areas with well-developed biocrusts dominated by lichens). Also how biocrusts affect soil moisture is a current topic in dryland ecology under a debate, with many contradicting results in the literature. So the question was already there and the data were prone to be analyzed…

Particularly, I started with this paper as my attempt for writing a scientific paper. I was a student in a course on scientific writing lectured by Fernando Maestre, I had nothing to write as part of this course and Fernando was looking for someone to play with these data. At the end a beautiful story came up after the analyses, and we decided to focus seriously on writing a paper to publish these results.

What have you enjoyed the most during the “life cycle” of this article (from its conception to its publication)?

It is really complicated to choose only one moment. I enjoyed especially all the analyses we conducted. Actually this was very special for me, since in the end I learnt a lot thanks to the multiple discussions with Dr Santiago Soliveres (not only about structural equation modelling, but also about statistics in general and about scientific writing). This interaction led Santi to become my PhD co-advisor. Discussing with Fernando and Santi for hours about the analyses to be carried out to the data and how to interpret the results I obtained were moments that I will always remember as a scientist.

What have been the major difficulties you have encountered when conducting the research reflected in this article?

The major difficulty of this paper came during the review process. One of the reviewers was pretty exhaustive on his/her review, so we had to go through three rounds of review before the final acceptance of the manuscript. Actually now that I think about it was not that hard and I learned a lot during the whole publishing process. But I remember opening and reading the e-mails from the journal explaining why the paper was still not good enough as quite stressful moments at the time.

Publishing today is really hard, how has been your experience with this publication?

Given that this is actually my first publication, I guess the answer to this question is: it was hard; but I cannot tell how hard it was because this has been my first experience in the publishing world. Hope to have better criteria soon as I am able to write and publish more articles from my PhD work.