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Effects of litter traits, soil biota, and soil chemistry on soil carbon stocks at a common garden with 14 tree species


Tree species interact with soil biota to impact soil organic carbon (C) pools, but it is unclear how this interaction is shaped by various ecological factors. We used multiple regression to describe how ~100 variables were related to soil organic C pools in a common garden experiment with 14 temperate tree species. Potential predictor variables included: (i) the abundance, chemical composition, and decomposition rates of leaf litter and fine roots, (ii) species richness and abundance of bacteria, fungi, and invertebrate animals in soil, and (iii) measures of soil acidity and texture. The amount of organic C in the organic horizon and upper 20 cm of mineral soil (i.e. the combined C pool) was strongly negatively correlated with earthworm abundance and strongly positively correlated with the abundance of aluminum, iron, and protons in mineral soils. After accounting for these factors, we identified additional correlations with soil biota and with litter traits. Rates of leaf litter decomposition, measured as litter mass loss, were negatively correlated with size of the combined soil organic C pool. Somewhat paradoxically, the combined soil organic C pool was also negatively related to the ratio of recalcitrant compounds to nitrogen in leaf litter. These apparent effects of litter traits probably arose because two independent components of litter “quality” were controlling different aspects of decomposition. Leaf litter mass loss rates were positively related with leaf litter calcium concentrations, reflecting greater utilization and depolymerization of calcium-rich leaf litter by earthworms and other soil biota, which presumably led to greater proportional losses of litter C as CO2 or dissolved organic C. The fraction of depolymerized and metabolized litter that is ultimately lost as CO2 is an inverse function of microbial C use efficiency, which increases with litter nutrient concentrations but decreases with concentrations of recalcitrant compounds (e.g. lignin); thus, high ratios of recalcitrant compounds to nitrogen in leaf litter likely caused a greater fraction of depolymerized litter to be lost as CO2. Existing conceptual models of soil C stabilization need to reconcile the effects of litter quality on these two potentially counteracting factors: rates of litter depolymerization and microbial C use efficiency.

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