Bacteria should be excellent indicators of the early signs of degradation caused by human intervention because they have the highest surface area to volume ratio of all organisms. We determined the utility of a simple procedure that measures aerobic bacterial metabolic diversity (BIOLOG EcoPlates) as a reliable tool for assessing the effects of cattle grazing on spring ecosystems of the Bonneville Basin, Utah, USA. Marshes disturbed by cattle could be distinguished from protected marshes using EcoPlate analyses. The diversity of organic compounds used by bacteria was greater in grazed versus ungrazed marshes. A separate genetic analysis (DGGE) provided corroborating evidence. Greater metabolic diversity (EcoPlates) corresponded to greater bacterial assemblage diversity in grazed versus protected marshes. Greater plant diversity at grazed sites might account for the greater diversity of organic substrates used by bacteria in grazed sites. However, the results were not conclusive. In some marshes, a greater diversity of organic substrate use occurred where there was greater plant diversity, whereas in other marshes the diversity of organic substrates used by bacteria was lower where plant diversity was greatest. Regardless of the mechanism, aerobic bacterial metabolic diversity (EcoPlates) is a potentially valuable tool for assessing the early signs of degradation in wetland ecosystems.
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Vol. 24 • No. 3