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Midgley, Meghan G.
Philips, R.
Brzostek, Edward
Sulman, B. N.
Craig, M.
Keller, A.B.

A trait-based framework for understanding how and why litter decay and resource stoichiometry promote biogeochemical syndromes in arbuscular- and ectomycorrhizal-dominated forests

Date created
While it has long been known that ecosystems dominated by arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) plants (e.g., grasslands, tropical forests) cycle carbon (C) and nutrients differently than those dominated by ectomycorrhizal (ECM) plants (e.g., boreal and subarctic forests), demonstrations of these patterns in ecosystems where both mycorrhizal types co-occur are rare. We tested the hypothesis that variation between AM and ECM nutrient use traits (e.g., litter quality) promote distinct microbial traits that track biogeochemical syndromes in temperate forests. We then explored whether such belowground dynamics influence ecosystem responses to elevated CO2. To do this, we calculated the C to N ratios of litter, soil microbes and soil organic matter in AM- and ECM-dominated forests throughout the temperate region. We then used these data to parameterize a coupled plant uptake-microbial decomposition model, in order to determine how belowground interactions feedback to affect ecosystem C and N cycling in forests exposed to elevated CO2. We found support for our hypothesis: AM litters decomposed 50% faster than ECM litters (p < 0.05), and litter decay rates were negatively correlated with the C:N of soils (including the microbial biomass and mineral soil; p < 0.05 for both) and positively correlated with net nitrification rates (p < 0.01). However, faster nitrogen (N) cycling in AM plots was also associated with a greater amount of physcially protected N in soil, suggesting that nutrient stabilizing mechanisms may constrain NPP in response to elevated CO2. Our model results supported this prediction. We found that while the C cost of acquiring of N is cheaper for AM trees than ECM trees, this cost difference is reduced under rising atmospheric CO2 owing to the enhanced protection of soil N in AM soils. Taken together, our results demonstrate that variation in AM- and ECM-associated plant and microbial traits promote predictable biogeochemical syndromes in temperate forests that can impact decomposition and NPP. Given that AM species are predicted to increase in abundance across much of the temperate region, our modeling results suggest that more N may get locked up in soils - a process that would induce progressive nutrient limitation of NPP and reduce the strength of the C sink in these forests.