The effects of condensed tannins, nitrogen and climate on decay, nitrogen mineralisation and microbial communities in forest tree leaf litter

Date

2017-01-03

Authors

Shay, Philip-Edouard

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Abstract

Vast amounts of carbon are stored forest soils, a product of decaying organic matter. Increased CO2 in the atmosphere is predicted to lead to increasing global temperatures, and more extreme moisture regimes. Such increases in mean temperature could accelerate the rate of organic matter decay in soils and lead to additional release of CO2 into the atmosphere, thus exacerbating climate change. However, due to its impact on plant metabolism, high atmospheric CO2 concentrations may also lead to greater condensed tannins (CT) and reduced nitrogen (N) content in leaf litter. This reduction in litter quality has the potential to slow decay of organic matter in soil and therefore offset the accelerated decay resulting from a warmer climate. My research aimed to quantify the effects of climate and litter chemistry, specifically CT and N, on litter decay, N mineralization and associated microbes in the field. Strings of litterbags were laid on the forest floor along climate transects of mature Douglas-fir stands of coastal British Columbia rain-shadow forests. In-situ climate was monitored alongside carbon and nitrogen loss over 3.58 years of decay along three transects located at different latitudes, each transect spanning the coastal Western Hemlock and Douglas-fir biogeoclimatic zones. Microbial communities in the decaying litter and in forest soils were also analyzed using polymerase chain reaction-denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis (PCR-DGGE). Microbial biogeography at field sites was partially influenced by climate, soil characteristics and spatial distance, but did not improve best fit decay models using climate and litter chemistry variables. Litter with greater initial CT and smaller N concentration slowed down early decay (0 - 0.58 yr) and net N mineralization. Warmer temperatures accelerated later decay (0.58 - 3.58 yr) and net N mineralization. Water-soluble CT were rapidly lost during decay, while other forms of CT were likely responsible for slower decay. The composition of fungal communities on decaying litter was affected by initial concentrations of CT and N. On a yearly basis, the slower decay of litter with high CT and reduced N content can offset accelerated rates of decay associated with warmer temperatures. Concurrent shifts in microbial communities and net N mineralization suggest potential benefits to trees.

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Keywords

carbon sequestration, climate change, temperature, moisture, fungi, ammonia-oxidizing bacteria, nitrogen-fixing bacteria, butanol-HCl, microbial carbon use efficiency, proanthocyanidin, forest soil, Douglas-fir, poplar

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