Slowed decomposition is biotically mediated in an ectomycorrhizal, tropical rain forest

Krista L McGuire, Donald R Zak, Ivan P Edwards, Christopher B Blackwood, Rima Upchurch
Oecologia 2010, 164 (3): 785-95
Bacteria and fungi drive the cycling of plant litter in forests, but little is known about their role in tropical rain forest nutrient cycling, despite the high rates of litter decay observed in these ecosystems. However, litter decay rates are not uniform across tropical rain forests. For example, decomposition can differ dramatically over small spatial scales between low-diversity, monodominant rain forests, and species-rich, mixed forests. Because the climatic patterns and soil parent material are identical in co-occurring mixed and monodominant forests, differences in forest floor accumulation, litter production, and decomposition between these forests may be biotically mediated. To test this hypothesis, we conducted field and laboratory studies in a monodominant rain forest in which the ectomycorrhizal tree Dicymbe corymbosa forms >80% of the canopy, and a diverse, mixed forest dominated by arbuscular mycorrhizal trees. After 2 years, decomposition was significantly slower in the monodominant forest (P < 0.001), but litter production was significantly greater in the mixed forest (P < 0.001). In the laboratory, we found microbial community biomass was greater in the mixed forest (P = 0.02), and the composition of fungal communities was distinct between the two rain forest types (P = 0.001). Sequencing of fungal rDNA revealed a significantly lower richness of saprotrophic fungi in the monodominant forest (19 species) relative to the species-rich forest (84 species); moreover, only 4% percent of fungal sequences occurred in both forests. These results show that nutrient cycling patterns in tropical forests can vary dramatically over small spatial scales, and that changes in microbial community structure likely drive the observed differences in decomposition.

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