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12.05.2014 13:45

Biodiversity matters even in the afterlife

The decomposition of dead organic matter is directly linked to the diversity of its composition and the biodiversity of the organisms decomposing the litter. This was recently demonstrated by a team of international researchers among them ecologist Bernhard Schmid from the University of Zurich. According to the study published in Nature the scientists conducted field experiments in ecosystems at five locations acroos a latidudinal gradient spanning from the subarctic to the tropics, with intermediate locations in boreal, temperate and Mediterranean climates

Leaf litter microcosms exposed in a Mediterranean forest.Photo Credit: Stephan Hättenschwiler

The decomposition of dead organic matter is a major determinant of carbon and nutrient cycling in ecosystems, and of carbon fluxes between the biosphere and the atmosphere. Decomposition is driven by a vast diversity of organisms that are structured in complex food webs. Identifying the mechanisms underlying the effects of biodiversity on decomposition is critical given the rapid loss of species worldwide and the effects of this loss on human well-being. Yet despite comprehensive syntheses of studies on how biodiversity affects litter decomposition,  key questions remain, including when, where and how biodiversity has a role and whether general patterns and mechanisms occur across ecosystems and different functional types of organism. Here, in field experiments across five terrestrial and aquatic locations, ranging from the subarctic to the tropics, we  how that reducing the functional diversity of decomposer organisms and plant litter types slowed the cycling of litter carbon and nitrogen. Moreover, we found evidence of nitrogen transfer from the litter of nitrogen-fixing plants to that of rapidly decomposing plants, but not between other plant functional types, highlighting that specific interactions in litter mixtures control carbon and nitrogen cycling during decomposition. The emergence of this general mechanism and the coherence of patterns across contrasting terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems suggest that biodiversity loss has consistent consequences for litter decomposition and the cycling of major elements on broad spatial scales.

Further reading:
I. Tanya Handa, Rien Aerts, Frank Berendse, Matty P. Berg, Andreas Bruder, Olaf Butenschoen, Eric Chauvet, Mark O. Gessner, Jérémy Jabiol, Marika Makkonen, Brendan G. McKie1, Björn Malmqvist, Edwin T. H. M. Peeters, Stefan Scheu, Bernhard Schmid, Jasper van Ruijven, Veronique C. A.Vos, Stephan Hättenschwiler, Consequences of biodiversity loss for litter decomposition across biomes, 218,  NATURE, VOL 509, 8 MAY 2014, doi:10.1038/nature13247

Prof. Dr. Bernhard Schmid
Institute of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies
Winterthurerstr. 190
CH-8057 Zürich
Phone: +41 635 52 05
Email: bernhard.schmid (at) ieu.uzh.ch



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