Soil aggregate stability (AS) has been promoted as a primary indicator of soil-surface function and a key metric in state-and-transition models. There are few studies, however, that relate indices of AS to the process of grassland degradation. In a Chihuahuan Desert rangeland, we measured variation in AS across vegetated-bare patch boundaries within six plot types reflecting a hypothesized fragmentation/transition sequence. We also examined wetting front depth and pH along this sequence. We found that AS exhibited consistent and interpretable variation across the patch boundaries of the different plot types. Average AS was highest in grass patches adjacent to small to medium-sized (0.5–1.5 m) bare patches and was low in grass patches adjacent to large (> 3 m) bare patches. AS of bare ground was also lowest when bare patches in continuous grassland were large and when bare ground formed an interconnected matrix. Wetting depth after a large storm decreased and pH increased along the fragmentation sequence. The results suggest that AS has interpretable relationships with grassland fragmentation and transitions among states. Careful attention to patchiness within states and stratification, however, is important and simple classifications of strata, such as “bare interspace” and “plant,” may not be sufficient to document variation in soil function.
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Vol. 59 • No. 4