Usnea antarctica, an important Antarctic lichen, is vulnerable to aspects of regional environmental change
Studies of cryptogam responses to climate change in the polar regions are scarce because these slow-growing organisms require long-term monitoring studies. Here, we analyse the response of a lichen and moss community to 10 years of passive environmental manipulation using open-top chambers (OTCs) in the maritime Antarctic region. Cover of the dominant lichen Usnea antarctica declined by 71 % in the OTCs. However, less dominant lichen species showed no significant responses except for an increase in Ochrolechia frigida, which typically covered dying lichen and moss vegetation. There were no detectable responses in the moss or associated micro-arthropod communities to the influence of the OTCs. Based on calculated respiration rates, we hypothesise that the decline of U. antarctica was most likely caused by increased net winter respiration rates (11 %), driven by the higher temperatures and lower light levels experienced inside the OTCs as a result of greater snow accumulation. During summer, U. antarctica appears unable to compensate for this increased carbon loss, leading to a negative carbon balance on an annual basis, and the lichen therefore appears to be vulnerable to such climate change simulations. These findings indicate that U. antarctica dominated fell-fields may change dramatically if current environmental change trends continue in the maritime Antarctic, especially if associated with increases in winter snow depth or duration.