Invasive engineers alter ecosystems

Ecosystem engineers  change the environment in a way that influences the availability of essential resources to organisms living within that environment.  Beavers are classic ecosystem engineers; they chop down trees and build dams that change water flow and provide habitat for many species, and alter nutrient and food availability within an ecosystem. Ecologists are particularly interested in understanding what happens when an invasive species also happens to be an ecosystem engineer; how are the many interactions between species influenced by the presence of a novel ecosystem engineer?

For her Ph.D research Linsey Haram studied the effects of the invasive red alga Gracilaria vermiculophylla on native estuarine food webs in the Southeast USA. She wanted to know how much biomass this ecosystem engineer contributed to the system, how it decomposed, and what marine invertebrates ate it. She was spending quite a lot of time in Georgia’s knee-deep mud at low tide, and became acquainted with the shorebirds that zipped around her as she worked. She knew that small marine invertebrates are attracted to the seaweed and are abundant on algae-colonized mudflats, and she wondered if the shorebirds were cueing into that. If so, the non-native alga could affect the food web both directly, by providing more food to invertebrate grazers, and indirectly, by providing habitat for marine invertebrates and thus boosting resources for shorebirds.

least-sandpiper-in-grac_signed.jpg

A least sandpiper forages on a red algae-colonized mudflat. Credit: Linsey Haram.

Since the early 2000’s, Gracilaria vermiculophylla has dramatically changed estuaries in southeast USA by creating novel habitat on mudflats that had previously been mostly bare, due to high turbidity and a lack of hard surface for algal attachment.  But this red alga has a symbiotic association with a native tubeworm, Diopatra cuprea, that attaches the seaweed to its tube so it can colonize the mudflats.  This creates a more hospitable environment to many different invertebrates, providing cover from heat, drying out, and predators, while also providing food to invertebrates that graze on the algae.

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Closeup view of the red alga Gracilaria vermiculophylla, an invasive ecosystem engineer.  Credit: Linsey Haram

Haram and her colleagues decided to investigate how algae presence might be influencing bird distribution and behavior.  They realized that this influence might be scale-dependent; on a large spatial scale birds may see the algae from afar and be drawn to an algae-rich mudflat, while on a smaller spatial scale, differences in foraging behavior may lead to differences in how a particular species uses the algal patches in comparison to bare patches.

To explore large scale effects, the researchers counted all shorebirds (as viewed from a boat) on 500 meter transects along six bare mudflats and six algal mudflats.  They also measured algal density (even algal mudflats have large patches without algae), and invertebrate distribution and abundance both on the surface and buried within the sediment. These surveys showed that shorebirds, in general, were much more common on algal mudflats. As you can see, this trend was stronger in some shorebird species than others, and one species (graph f below) showed no significant trend.

HaramFig1

Field surveys of shorebird density (#/ha) on six bare mudflats compared to six mudflats colonized by Gracilaria vermiculophylla. * indicates weak trend (0.05 < P < 0.10), ** indicates a stronger difference (P < 0.05).  Bold horizontal bars are median values. Common names of species are (b) dunlin, (c) small sandpipers, (d) ruddy turnstone, (e) black-bellied plover, (f) semipalmated plover, (g) willet, (h) short-billed dowitcher.

Algal mudflats had a much greater abundance and biomass of invertebrates living on the surface, particularly isopods and snails, which presumably attracted some of these birds.  However, below the surface, there were no significant differences in invertebrate abundance and biomass when comparing mudflats with and without algae.

Having shown that on a large spatial scale shorebirds tend to visit algal mudflats, Haram and her colleagues then turned their attention to bird preferences on a smaller spatial scale. First, they conducted experiments on an intermediate scale, observing bird foraging preferences on 10 X 20 plots with or without algae.  They then turned their attention to an even smaller scale, by observing the foraging behavior on a <1mscale.  On each sampling day, the researchers observed individuals of seven different shorebird species on a mudflat with algal patches, to see whether focal birds spent more time foraging on algal patches or bare mud.  During each 3-minute observation, researchers recorded the number of pecks made into algal patches vs. bare mud, and compared that to the expected peck distribution based on the observed ratio of algal-cover to bare mud (which was a ratio of 27:73).

On the smallest scale, two of the species, Calidras minutilla and Aranaria interpres, showed a very strong preferences for foraging in algae, while a third species, Calidris alpine, showed a weak algal preference. In contrast, Calidris species (several species of difficult-to-distinguish sandpipers) and Charadrius semipalmatus strongly preferred foraging in bare mud, while the remaining two species showed no preference.

HaramFig2

Small-scale foraging preferences  (x–axis) of shorebirds. Solid blue curve is the strength of population preference (in terms of probability – y-axis) for mudflats, while solid red curve is the strength of population preference for algae.  Dashed curves are individual preferences.  Red arrows at 0.27 indicates the proportion of the mudflat that is covered with algae, while the blue arrow at 0.73 represents the proportion of bare mudflat (and hence indicate random foraging decisions).  Filled arrows are significantly different from random, shaded arrows are slightly different from random, while unfilled arrows are random. Common names of species are: (a) dunlin, (b) least sandpiper, (c) small sandpipers, (d) ruddy turnstone, (e) semipalmated plover, (f) willet, (g) short-billed dowitcher.

If you compare the two sets of graphs above, you will note that in some cases shorebird preferences for algae are similar across large and small spatial scales, but for other species, these preferences may vary with spatial scale.  For example, Arenaria interpres was attracted to algal mudflats on a large scale, and once present, these birds foraged exclusively amongst the algae, shunning any mud that lacked algae.  Small sandpipers (Calidris species) also were attracted to algal mudflats on a large scale, but in contrast to Arenaria interpres, these sandpipers foraged exclusively in bare mud, rather than in the algae.

The researchers conclude that different species have different habitat preferences across spatial scales in response to Gracilaria vermiculophylla. Most, but not all, species were more attracted to mudflats that harbored the invasive ecosystem engineer.  But once there, shorebird small-scale preference varied in response to species-specific foraging strategy.  For example, the ruddy turnstone (Arenaria interpres) discussed in the previous paragraph, forages by turning over stones (hence its name) shells and clumps of vegetation, eating any invertebrates it uncovers.  Accordingly, it forages primarily in algal clumps.  In contrast, willets (Tringa semipalmata), short-billed dowitchers (Limnodromus griseus) and dunlins (Calidris alpine) were all attracted strongly to algal mudflats, but showed basically random foraging on a small spatial scale, showing little or no preference for algal clumps.  The researchers explain that these three species use their very long beaks to probe deeply beneath the surface, using tactile cues to grab prey. So unlike the ruddy turnstone and some other species that forage for surface invertebrates, they don’t use the algae as a cue that food is available below.  Thus species identity, and consequent morphology, behavior and foraging niche are all important parts of how a community responds to an invasive ecosystem engineer.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Haram, L. E., Kinney, K. A., Sotka, E. E. and Byers, J. E. (2018), Mixed effects of an introduced ecosystem engineer on the foraging behavior and habitat selection of predators. Ecology, 99: 2751-2762. doi:10.1002/ecy.2495. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2018 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

Girl and boy flowers support different microbe communities.

Most of us are accustomed to thinking about sexual dimorphism in animals.  Male lions have manes, and male deer have antlers and generally larger bodies than female deer.  In many species, male birds have more complex sings and more colorful plumage. Perhaps less familiar is that female insects are generally larger than males of the same species.  But many of us are unaware that sexual dimorphism exists in some plant species as well.

As a child, Kaoru Tsuji spent considerable time watching insects on plants.  Later, as an undergraduate at Kyoto University in Japan, she noticed that larvae of a particular geometrid moth only visited male Eurya japonica plants, but not females. This led to her graduate work on how plant sexes affect herbivorous insects, and later, more broadly, on how plant sexual dimorphism affects other species in the community.

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Kaoru Tsuji gazes at female Eurya emarginata plant. Credit: Noriyo Tsuji.

At the 2014 Ecological Society of America meetings, Tsuji heard Tadashi Fukami talk about microbial communities in flower nectar, and realized that she could learn to apply Fukami’s techniques to the microbial communities living within Eurya flowers.  After working three months in Tadashi’s lab, Tsuji was now ready to explore whether two plant species, Eurya japonica and Eurya emarginata, host different communities of bacteria and fungi in the flowers of male and female plants.

TsujiFlowers

Male and female flowers of the two study species visited by pollinators.  These photos are not to scale; in actuality the male flower is substantially larger.  You can get a sense of this by noting that the same insect pollinator, the fly Stomorhina obsoleta, is pictured in figure a and near the top left of figure b.

For both species, male flowers tend to be larger, while female flowers tend to have sweeter nectar. Higher sugar levels will increase the chemical stress experienced by microbial organisms living in the nectar. Because the inside of a microbial cell has a lower sugar concentration (and thus a higher water concentration) than the sugar rich nectar environment, water tends to leave the microbial cell, leading to severe dehydration. Thus Tsuji and Fukami expected to find lower microbial abundance in female flower nectar.

Complicating this situation, animal visitors, such as bees and flies, also influence the microbial community in at least two ways.  First, many nectar-colonizing microbes depend on animals to disperse them to new flowers. Second, the interaction of nectar production, water evaporation and consumption by bees and flies can change the concentration of sugar in the nectar.  If there are few (or no) animals drinking the nectar, water will evaporate, sugar will remain, and the nectar will become more and more concentrated (sweeter) as more nectar is secreted over time.  But if nectar gets consumed, the new secretions will simply replace the old nectar, and sugar levels should be relatively constant. Thus flowers without animal visitors should impose more chemical stress on microorganisms by virtue of being sweeter.

The researchers sampled nectar from 1736 flowers, and grew the nectar microbes on agar plates supplied with nutrients that would support either bacterial or fungal growth.  In addition, the researchers also placed small-mesh bags over a subset of these flowers (before they opened), to reduce animal visitation.  After five days they counted the number of colonies formed, to estimate microbial abundance. Unfortunately, microbes were rarely found in E. japonica, so most of the data are for E. emarginata flowers only.

Tsujiplates

Female flowers of Eurya emarginata visited by a fly, Stomorhina obsoleta. Agar plates showing isolated colonies of nectar-colonizing microbes are superimposed. Left and right plates have yeast and bacterial colonies, respecitevly, both isolated from E. emarginata nectar. Credit: Kaoru Tsuji and Yuichiro Kanzaki.

First, as expected, female flowers had higher nectar sugar levels than did male flowers (the Brix value measures sucrose concentration).  In addition, putting a fine mesh bag over the buds substantially increased sugar levels in nectar from flowers of both sexes.

Tsuji2e

Sucrose (Brix) concentration of exposed and bagged E. emarginata flowers of both sexes.  For box plots, the dark horizontal bar is the median value, while the box encloses the 25th and 75th percentile.

The proportion of flowers in which fungi and bacteria were detected was much greater in male flowers than in female flowers.  In male flowers only, bagging the flowers decreased fungal frequency but not bacteria frequency.

Tsujifig2ab

The proportion of exposed and bagged E. emarginata flowers whose nectar, when cultured in the appropriate medium, generated fungal colonies (top graph) and bacterial colonies (bottom graph).

The researchers used colony forming units (CFUs) – the number of viable colonies on the agar plate – as their measure of bacterial abundance.

TsujiFig2cdnewnew

Abundance of fungi (top) and bacteria (bottom) cultured in agar plates, that were swabbed with nectar derived from exposed and bagged E. emarginata flowers of both sexes. Note that the y-axis is log10 CFUs, so an increase from 3 to 4 (for example) is actually a tenfold increase in number of CFUs.

As expected, fungi were less abundant in female flower nectar than in male flower nectar.  In addition, bagging the flowers substantially reduced fungal abundance. Bacteria were also less abundant in female flower nectar than in male flower nectar.  Surprisingly, bagging the flowers substantially increased bacterial abundance, despite the increased chemical stress and decreased visitation by animal visitors.

Why did bacterial abundance increase when flowers were bagged?  The researchers hypothesize that reduced fungal dispersal from bagging caused competitive release of bacteria from the fungi.  Presumably the fungi and bacteria compete for essential resources (such as amino acids) in the nectar.  Because the bags reduce fungal abundance, there are fewer fungi to out-compete the bacteria, leading to an increase in bacterial abundance.

The researchers used DNA analysis to characterize which microbial species were found in female vs. male flowers.  They discovered major differences in species composition between the sexes.  Taken together with the data on frequency and abundance, it is clear that sexual dimorphism in these plants influences microbial communities in significant ways.  Tsuji and Fukami suggest that sexual dimorphism in many species may have profound community-wide consequences that researchers are only beginning to understand and uncover.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Tsuji, K. and Fukami, T. (2018), Community‐wide consequences of sexual dimorphism: evidence from nectar microbes in dioecious plants. Ecology, 99: 2476-2484. doi:10.1002/ecy.2494. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2018 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

Coral can recover (occasionally)

Coral reefs have amazing species diversity, which depends, in part, on a mutualism between the coral animal and a group of symbiotic algae that live inside the coral. The algae provide the coral host with approximately 90% of the energy it needs (from photosynthetic product).  In return, the algae are rewarded with a place to live and a generous allotment of nitrogen (mostly fecal matter) from the coral.  Unfortunately, coral are under attack from a variety of sources. Most problematic, humans are releasing massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which is increasing ocean temperatures and also making the ocean more acidic.  Both processes can kill coral by causing coral to eject their symbiotic algae, making it impossible for the coral to get enough nutrients.

Moorea Coral Reef LTER site

The coral reef at Mo’orea. Credit: Moorea Coral Reef LTER site.

But other factors threaten coral ecosystems as well. For example, the reefs of Mo’orea , French Polynesia (pictured above), were attacked by the voracious seastar, Acanthaster planci, between 2006-2010, which reduced the coral cover (the % of the ocean floor that is covered with coral when viewed from above) from 45.8% in 2006 to 6.4% in 2009.  Then, in Feb 2010, Cyclone Oli hit, and by April, mean coral cover had plummeted down to 0.4%.

Moorea swimmers

Researchers survey the reef at Mo’orea. Credit: Peter Edmunds.

Peter Edmunds has been studying the coral reef ecosystem at Mo’orea for 14 years, and has observed firsthand the sequence of reef death, and the subsequent recovery.  Working with Hannah Nelson and Lorenzo Bramanti, he wanted to document the recovery process, and to identify the underlying mechanisms.  Fortunately Mo’orea is a Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) site, one of 28 such sites funded by the United States National Science Foundation.  Consequently the researchers had long term data available to them, so they could document how coral abundance had changed since 2005.  Their analysis showed the decline in coral cover from 2007 to 2010, but a remarkable rapid recovery beginning in 2012 and continuing through 2017.

EdmundsFig1

% cover (+ SE) of all coral , Pocillopora coral (the species group that the research team focused on). and macroalgae at Mo’orea over a 13 year period based on LTER data. The horizontal bar with COTs above it represents the time period of maximum seastar predation.

What factors caused this sharp recovery? One general process that could be part of the answer is density dependence, whereby populations have high growth rates when densities are low and there is very little competition, and low growth rates when densities are high and there is a great deal of competition between individuals, or in this case, between colonies. The problem is that though density dependence makes intuitive sense, it is difficult to demonstrate, as other factors could underlie the coral recovery.  Perhaps after 2011 there was more food available, or fewer predators, or maybe the weather was better for coral growth.

EdmundsQuadrats

High density (top) and low density (bottom) quadrats of Pocillopora coral established by the research group.

To more convincingly test for density dependence, Edmunds and his colleagues set up an experiment, establishing 18 1m2 quadrats in April, 2016. The researchers reduced coral cover in nine quadrats to 19.1% by removing seven or eight colonies from each experimental quadrat (low density quadrats), and left the other nine quadrats as unmanipulated controls, with coral cover averaging 32.5% (high density quadrats).  They then asked if, over the course of the next year, more recruits (new colonies < 4cm diameter) became established in the low density quadrats.

Returning in 2017, the researchers discovered substantially greater recruitment in the low density quadrats than in the high density quadrats. This experiment provides strong evidence that the rapid recovery after devastation by seastars and Cyclone Oli was helped by a density dependent response of the coral population – high recruitment at low population density.

EdmundsFig3

Density of recruits just after (left), and one year after (right) the quadrats were established. Solid bars are means (+ SE) for high density quadrats, while clear bars are means (+ SE) for low density quadrats.

In recent years, many coral reef systems around the world have experienced declining coral cover, a loss of fish and invertebrate diversity and abundance, and an increase in abundance of macroalgae.  While many of these reefs continue to decline, others, such as the reefs at the Mo’orea LTER site, are more resilient, and are able to recover from disturbance.  The researchers argue that we need to fully understand the mechanisms underlying recovery – in other words what is causing the density dependent response? Is it simply competition between coral that cause high recruitment under low density, or may interactions between coral and algae be important?  And what types of interactions influence recruitment rates under different densities?  One possibility is that at high densities, coral are eating most of the tiny coral larvae as they descend from the surface after a mass spawning event.  This raises the important question of why many reefs around the world do not show this density dependent response.  Clearly there is much work remaining to be done if we want to preserve this critically endangered marine biome.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Edmunds, P. J., Nelson, H. R. and Bramanti, L. (2018), Density‐dependence mediates coral assemblage structure. Ecology, 99: 2605-2613. doi:10.1002/ecy.2511. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2018 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

Decomposition: it’s who you are and where you are

“Follow the carbon” is a growing pastime of ecologists and environmental researchers worldwide. In the process of cellular respiration, organisms use carbon compounds to fuel their metabolic pathways, so having carbon around makes life possible.  Within ecosystems, following the carbon is equivalent to following how energy flows among the producers, consumers, detritivores and decomposers. In soils, decomposers play a central role in energy flow, but we might not appreciate their importance because many decomposers are tiny, and decomposition is very slow.  We are thrilled by a hawk subduing a rodent, but are less appreciative of a bacterium breaking down a lignin molecule, even though at their molecular heart, both processes are the same, in that complex carbon enters the organism and fuels cellular respiration.  However. from a global perspective, cellular respiration produces carbon dioxide as a waste product, which if allowed to escape the ecosystem, will increase the pool of atmospheric carbon dioxide thereby increasing the rate of global warming. So following the carbon is an ecological imperative.

As the world warms, trees and shrubs are colonizing regions that previously were inaccessible to them. In northern Sweden, mountain birch forests (Betula pubescens) and birch shrubs (Betula nana) are advancing into the tundra, replacing the heath that is dominated by the crowberry, Empetrum nigrum. As he began his PhD studies, Thomas Parker became interested in the general question of how decomposition changes as trees and shrubs expand further north in the Arctic. On his first trip to a field site in northern Sweden he noticed that the areas of forest and shrubs produced a lot of leaf litter in autumn yet there was no significant accumulation of this litter the following year. He wondered how the litter decomposed, and how this process might change as birch overtook the crowberry.

ParkerView

One of the study sides in autumn: mountain birch forest (yellow) in the background, dwarf birch (red) on the left and crowberry on the right. Credit: Tom Parker.

Several factors can affect leaf litter decomposition in northern climes.  First, depending on what they are made of, different species of leaves will decompose at different rates.  Second, different types of microorganisms present will target different types of leaves with varying degrees of efficiency.  Lastly, the abiotic environment may play a role; for example, due to shade and creation of discrete microenvironments, forests have deeper snowpack, keeping soils warmer in winter and potentially elevating decomposer cellular respiration rates. Working with several other researchers, Parker tested the following three hypotheses: (1) litter from the more productive vegetation types will decompose more quickly, (2) all types of litter decompose more quickly in forest and shrub environments, and (3) deep winter snow (in forest and shrub environments) increase litter decomposition compared to heath environments.

To test these hypotheses, Parker and his colleagues established 12 transects that transitioned from forest to shrub to heath. Along each transect, they set up three 2 m2 plots – one each in the forest, shrub, and heath – 36 plots in all. In September of 2012, the researchers collected fresh leaf littler from mountain birch, shrub birch and crowberry, which they sorted, dried and placed into 7X7 cm. polyester mesh bags.  They placed six litter bags of each species at each of the 36 plots, and then harvested these bags periodically over the next three years. Bags were securely attached to the ground so that small decomposers could get in, but the researchers had to choose a relatively small mesh diameter to make sure they successfully enclosed the tiny crowberry leaves. This restricted access to some of the larger decomposers.

ParkerLitterBags

Some litter bags attached to the soil surface at the beginning of the experiment. Credit: Tom Parker.

To test for the effect of snow depth, the researchers also set up snow fences on nearby heath sites.  These fences accumulated blowing and drifting snow, creating a snowpack comparable to that in nearby forest and shrub plots.

Parker and his colleagues found that B. pubescens leaves decomposed most rapidly and E. nigrum leases decomposed most slowly.  In addition, leaf litter decomposed fastest in the forest and most slowly in the heath.  Lastly, snow depth did not  influence decomposition rate.

ParkerEcologyFig1

(Left graph) Decomposition rates of E. nigrum, B. nana and B. pubescens in heath, shrub and forest. (Right graph) Decomposition rates of E. nigrum, B. nana and B. pubescens in heath under three different snow depths simulating snow accumulation at different vegetation types: Heath (control), + Snow (Shrub) and ++ Snow (Forest) . Error bars are 1 SE.

B. pubescens in forest and shrub lost the greatest amount (almost 50%) of mass over the three years of the study, while E. nigrum in heath lost the least (less than 30%).  However, B. pubescens decomposed much more rapidly in the forest than in the shrub between days 365 and 641. The bottom graphs below show that snow fences had no significant effect on decomposition.

ParkerEcologyFig2

Percentage of litter mass remaining (a, d) E. nigrum, (b, e) B. nana, (c, f) B. pubescens in heath, shrub, or forest. Top graphs (a, b, c) are natural transects, while the bottom graphs (d, e, f) represent heath tundra under three different snow depths simulating snow accumulation at different vegetation types: Heath (control), + Snow (Shrub) and ++ Snow (Forest) . Error bars represent are 1SE. Shaded areas on the x-axis indicate the snow covered season in the first two years of the study.

Why do mountain birch leaves decompose so much more than do crowberry leaves?  The researchers chemically analyzed both species and discovered that birch leaves had 1.7 times more carbohydrate than did crowberry, while crowberry had 4.9 times more lipids than did birch. Their chemical analysis showed much of birch’s rapid early decomposition was a result of rapid carbohydrate breakdown. In contrast, crowberry’s slow decomposition resulted from its high lipid content being relatively resistant to the actions of decomposers.

ParkerResearchers

Researchers (Parker right, Subke left) harvesting soils and litter in the tundra. Credit: Jens-Arne Subke.

Parker and his colleagues did discover that decomposition was fastest in the forest independent of litter type. Forest soils are rich in brown-rot fungi, which are known to target the carbohydrates (primarily cellulose) that are so abundant in mountain birch leaves.  The researchers propose that a history of high cellulose litter content has selected for a biochemical environment that efficiently breaks down cellulose-rich leaves. Once the brown-rot fungi and their allies have done much of the initial breakdown, another class of fungi (ectomycorrhizal fungi) kicks into action and metabolizes (and decomposes) the more complex organic molecules.

The result of all this decomposition in the forest, but not the heath, is that tundra heath stores much more organic compounds than does the adjacent forest (which loses stored organic compounds to decomposers).  As forests continue their relentless march northward replacing the heath, it is very likely that they will introduce their efficient army of decomposers to the former heathlands.  These decomposers will feast on the vast supply of stored organic carbon compounds, release large quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which will further exacerbate global warming. This is one of several positive feedbacks loops expected to destabilize global climate systems in the coming years.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Parker, T. C., Sanderman, J., Holden, R. D., Blume‐Werry, G., Sjögersten, S., Large, D., Castro‐Díaz, M., Street, L. E., Subke, J. and Wookey, P. A. (2018), Exploring drivers of litter decomposition in a greening Arctic: results from a transplant experiment across a treeline. Ecology, 99: 2284-2294. doi:10.1002/ecy.2442. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2018 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

Recovering soils suffer carbon loss

When dinosaurs roamed the Earth, and I was in high school, acid rain became big news.  Even my dad, who as an industrial chemist believed that industry seldom sinned, acknowledged that he could see how coal plants could release sulfur (and other) compounds, which would be converted to strong acids, borne by prevailing winds to distant destinations, and deposited by rain and snow into soils. Forest ecosystems in North America and Europe are happily, albeit slowly, recovering from the adverse effects of acid deposition, but there are some causes for concern.  At the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire, USA, researchers experimentally remediated some of the impacts of acid deposition by adding calcium silicate to a watershed (via helicopter!). A decade later, this treatment had caused a 35% decline in the total carbon stored in the soil. This result was very unexpected and alarming, as this could mean that acid-impacted temperate forests may become major sources of CO2, with more carbon running off into streams, and some becoming atmospheric CO2, as the effects of acid rain wane. Richard Marinos and Emily Bernhardt wanted to determine exactly what caused this carbon loss to better understand how forests will behave in the future as they recover from acidification.

hubbrook

The forest at Hubbard Brook in the Autumn. Credit: Hubbard Brook Ecosystem Study at hubbardbrook.org

The problem is that calcium and acidity (lower pH is more acid: higher pH is more alkaline) have different and complex effects on plants, soil microorganisms and the soils in which they live. Several previous studies demonstrated that higher soil pH (becoming more alkaline) caused an increase in carbon solubility, while higher calcium levels caused carbon to become less soluble. Soluble organic carbon forms a tiny fraction of total soil carbon, but is very important because it can be used by microorganisms for cellular respiration, and also can be leached from ecosystems as runoff. In general, soil microorganisms benefit as acidic soils recover because heavy metal toxicity is reduced, enzymes work better, and mycorrhizal associations are more robust.  Complicating the picture even more, both elevated calcium and increased pH have been associated with increased plant growth, but increased calcium is also associated with reduced fine root growth.

To help unravel this complexity, Marinos and Bernhardt experimentally tested the effects of increasing pH and increased calcium on soil organic carbon (SOC) solubility, microbial activity and plant growth.  They collected acidic soil from Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest, which formed three distinct layers: leaf litter on top, organic horizon below the leaf litter, and mineral soil below the organic horizon.

soil_excavation.jpg

Soil excavation site at Hubbard Brook. Credit: Richard Marinos.

The researchers then filled 100 2.5-liter pots with these three soil layers (in correct sequence) and planted 50 pots with sugar maple saplings, leaving 50 pots unplanted.  Pots were moved to a greenhouse, and that November given one of five treatments: calcium chloride addition (Ca treatment), potassium hydroxide addition (alkalinity treatment), Ca + alkalinity treatment combined, a deionized water control, and a potassium chloride control. The potassium chloride control had no effect, so we won’t discuss it further.

plants_outside

Potted sugar maple saplings used for the experiments. Credit Richard Marinos.

The following July, Marinos and Bernhardt harvested all of the pots, carefully separating plant roots from the soil, and analyzing the organic horizon and mineral soil levels separately (there wasn’t enough leaf litter remaining for analysis). The researchers measured SOC by mixing soil from each pot with deionized water, centrifuging at high speed to extract the water-soluble material, combusting the material at high temperature and measuring how much CO2 was generated. The result is termed water extractable organic carbon (WEOC).

Remember that previous studies had shown that higher calcium levels decreased carbon solubility, while higher alkalinity increased carbon solubility. Surprisingly, Marinos and Bernhardt found that in unplanted pots, the Ca treatment reduced WEOC in both soil layers, while the alkalinity treatment decreased WEOC in the organic horizon, but not in mineral soil. In pots planted with maple saplings, the Ca treatment had no effect on WEOC, while the alkalinity treatment, and the Ca + alkalinity treatment, increased WEOC markedly.

marinosfig1

Water-Extractable Organic Carbon in soil without plants (left column) and with plants (right column). Top graphs are organic horizon soils and bottom graphs are mineral horizon soils. Error bars are 1 standard error.

The next question was how might soil microorganisms fit into the plant-soil dynamics?

marinosfig2b

Soil respirations rates (top) over the short term (days 1-7 post-harvest) and (bottom) the long term (days 8-75 post-harvest). Error bars are 1 standard error.

Soil microorganisms use carbon products for cellular respiration, so the researchers expected that soils with more SOC would have higher respiration rates.  They measured soil respiration 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 35 and 72 days after the harvest, so they could evaluate both short-term and long-term effects. In unplanted pots, soil respiration rates were unaffected by treatment.  But in planted pots, the alkalinity treatment increased soil respiration rates considerably in the short term (top graphs), but much less so in the long-term (bottom graphs). Putting the WEOC data from the figure above together with the respiration data from the two figures to your left, you can see that in pots with plants, increased alkalinity was associated with more SOC and higher respiration rates.

The researchers weighed the saplings after harvest and discovered that the sugar maples grew best in soils treated with calcium. Two previous studies had treated fields with calcium silicate and found better sugar maple growth in the treated fields.  Marinos and Bernhardt argue that their study provides evidence that it is the Ca enrichment, and not the increased pH, that caused increased growth for both of those studies.

Perhaps the most surprising finding is that higher alkalinity increased soil microbial activity only in pots with plants, and had no effect on soil microbial activity in pots without plants. Somehow, the plants in an alkaline environment are increasing the rate of microbial respiration, perhaps by releasing carbohydrates produced by photosynthesis into the soil, which could then stimulate decomposition of SOC by the microorganisms. Finding that this effect largely disappeared a few days after harvest (bottom graph above), supports the idea that the plants are releasing a substance that helps microorganisms carry on cellular respiration. But this idea awaits further study. In the meantime, we have a better understanding of how forest recovery from acid rain affects one aspect of the carbon cycle, though many other human inputs may interact with this recovery process.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Marinos, R. E. and Bernhardt, E. S. (2018), Soil carbon losses due to higher pH offset vegetation gains due to calcium enrichment in an acid mitigation experiment. Ecology, 99: 2363-2373. doi:10.1002/ecy.2478. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2018 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

Sweltering ants seek salt

Like humans, ants need salt and sugar.  Salt is critical for a functioning nervous system and for maintaining muscle activity, while sugar is a ready energy source. In ectotherms such as ants, body temperature is influenced primarily by the external environment, with higher environmental temperatures leading to higher body temperatures.  When ants get hot their metabolic rates rise, so they can go out and do energetically demanding activities such as foraging for essential resources like salt and sugar. On the down side, hot ants excrete more salt and burn up more sugar.  In addition, like humans, very high body temperature can be lethal, so ants are forced to seek shelter during extreme heat.   As a beginning graduate student, Rebecca Prather wanted to know whether ants adjust their foraging rates on salt and sugar in response to the conflicting demands of elevated temperatures on ants’ physiological systems.

Prather at field site

Rebecca Prather at her field site in Oklahoma, USA. Credit: Rebecca Prather.

Prather and her colleagues studied two different field sites: Centennial Prairie is home to 16 ant species, while Pigtail Alley Prairie has nine species.  For their first experiment, the researchers established three transects with 100 stations baited with vials containing cotton balls and either 0.5% salt (NaCl) or 1% sucrose.  The bait stations were 1 meter apart.  After 1 hour, they collected the vials (with or without ants), and counted and identified each ant in each vial.  The researchers measured soil temperature at the surface and at a depth of 10 cm. The researchers repeated these experiments at 9 AM, 1 PM and 5 PM, April – October, 4 times each month.

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Ants recruited to vials with 0.5% salt solution.  Credit: Rebecca Prather.

Sugar is easily stored in the body, so while sugar consumption increases with temperature, due to increased ant metabolic rate, sugar excretion is relatively stable with temperature.  In contrast, salt cannot be stored effectively, so salt excretion increases at high body temperature.  Consequently, Prather and her colleagues expected that ant salt-demand would increase with temperature more rapidly than would ant sugar-demand.

PratherFig1

Ant behavior in response to vials with 0.5% salt (dark circles) and 1% sucrose (white circles) at varying soil temperatures at 9AM, 1 PM (13:00) and 5PM (17:00). The three left graphs show the number of vials discovered (containing at least one ant), while the three right graphs show the number of ants recruited per vial.  The Q10 value  = the rate of discovery or recruitment at 30 deg. C divided by the rate of discovery or recruitment at 20 deg. C. * indicates that the two curves have statistically significantly different slopes.

The researchers discovered that ants foraged more at high temperatures. However, when surface temperatures were too high (most commonly at 1 PM during summer months), ants could not forage and remained in their nests.  At all three times of day, ants discovered more salt vials at higher soil temperatures. Ants also discovered more sugar vials at higher temperatures in the morning and evening, but not during the 1 PM surveys. Most interesting, the slope of the curve was much steeper for salt discovery than it was for sugar discovery, indicating that higher temperature increased salt discovery rate more than it increased sugar discovery rate (three graphs on left).

When ants discover a high quality resource, they will recruit other nestmates to the resource to help with the harvest.  Ant recruitment rates increased with temperature to salt, but not sugar, indicating that ant demand for 0.5% salt increased more rapidly than ant demand for 1% sugar (three graphs above on right).

The researchers were concerned that the sugar concentrations were too low to excite much recruitment, so they replicated the experiments the following year using four different sugar concentrations.  Ant recruitment was substantially greater to higher sugar concentrations, but was still two to three times lower than it was to 0.5% salt.

PratherFig2

Ant recruitment (y-axis) to different sugar concentrations at a range of soil temperatures (X-axis). Q10 values are to the left of each line of best fit.

Three of the four most common ant species showed the salt and sugar preferences that we described above, but the other common species, Formica pallidefulva, actually decreased foraging at higher temperatures.  The researchers suggest that this species is outcompeted by the other more dominant species at high temperatures, and are forced to forage at lower temperatures when fewer competitors are present.

In a warming world, ant performance will increase as temperatures increase up to ants’ thermal maximum, at which point ant performance will crash.  Ants are critical to ecosystems, playing important roles as consumers and as seed dispersers. Thus many ecosystems in which ants are common (and there are many such ecosystems!) may function more or less efficiently depending on how changing temperatures influence ants’ abilities to consume and conserve essential nutrients such as salt.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Prather, R. M., Roeder, K. A., Sanders, N. J. and Kaspari, M. (2018), Using metabolic and thermal ecology to predict temperature dependent ecosystem activity: a test with prairie ants. Ecology, 99: 2113-2121. doi:10.1002/ecy.2445Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2018 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

What grows up must go down: plant species richness and soils below.

Almost 20 years ago, Dorota Porazinska was a postdoctoral researcher investigating whether plant diversity influenced the diversity of organisms that lived in the soil below these plants, including bacteria, protists, fungi and nematodes (collectively known as soil biota).  Surprisingly, she and her colleagues discovered no linkages between aboveground and belowground species diversity.  She suspected that two issues were responsible for this lack of linkage. First, the early study lumped related species into functional groups – for example nematodes that eat bacteria, or nematodes that eat fungi.  Lumping simplifies data collection but loses a lot of data because individual species are not distinguished.  Back in those days, identifying species with DNA analysis was time-consuming, expensive, and often impractical. The second issue was that even if aboveground-belowground diversity was linked, it might be difficult to detect.  Ecosystems are very complex, and many belowground species make a living off of legacies of carbon or other nutrients that are the remains of organisms that lived many generations ago.   These legacy organic nutrient pools allow for indirect (and thus more difficult to detect) linkages between aboveground and belowground species.

Porazinska and her colleagues reasoned that if there were aboveground/belowground relationships, they would be easiest to detect in the simplest ecosystems that lacked significant pools of legacy nutrients. They also used molecular techniques that were not readily available for earlier studies to identify distinct species based on DNA analysis. The researchers established 98 1-m radius circular plots at the Niwot Ridge Long Term Ecological Research Site in the Colorado, USA Rocky Mountains. At each plot, they identified and counted each vascular plant, and recorded the presence of moss and lichen.  They also censused soil biota by using a variety of DNA amplification and isolation techniques that allowed them to identify bacteria, archaea, protists, fungi and nematodes to species.

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Field assistant Jarred Huxley surveys plants in a high species richness plot. Credit Dorota L. Porazinska.

As expected in this alpine environment, plant species richness was quite low, averaging only 8 species per plot (range = 0 – 27).  In contrast to what had been found in other ecosystems, high plant diversity was associated with high diversity of soil biota.

PorazinskaEcologyFig1

Relationship between plant richness (x-axis) and soil biota richness (y-axis) for (A) bacteria, (B) eukaryotes (excluding fungi and nematodes), (C) fungi, and (D) nematodes.  OTUs are operational taxonomic units, which represent organisms with very similar or identical DNA sequences on a marker gene.  For our purposes, they represent distinct species.

Looking at the graphs above, you can see that different groups responded to different degrees; nematodes had the strongest response to increases in plant richness while fungi had the weakest response.  When viewed at a finer level, some groups of soil organisms, including photosynthetic microorganisms such as cyanobacteria and green algae actually decreased, presumably in response to competition with aboveground plants for light and possibly nutrients.

Given the strong relationship between plant species richness and soil biota richness, Porazinska and her colleagues next explored whether high plant richness was associated with soil nutrient levels (nutrient pools).  In general, there was a strong correlation between plant species richness and nutrient pools (see graphs below).  But soil moisture, and the ability of soil to hold moisture were the two most important factors associated with nutrient pools.

PorazinskaEcologyFig2

Amount (micrograms per gram of soil) of carbon (left graph) and nitrogen (right graph) in relation to plant species richness.

Ecologists studying soil processes can measure the rates at which microorganisms are metabolizing nutrients such as carbon, phosphorus and nitrogen.  The expectation was that if high plant species richness was associated with higher soil biota richness, and larger soil nutrient pools, then the activity of enzymes that metabolize soil nutrients should proportionally increase with these factors.  The researchers found that enzyme activity was very low where plants were absent or rare, and greatest in complex plant communities.  But the most important factors influencing enzyme activity were the amount of organic carbon present within the soil, and the ability of the soil to hold water.

PorazinskaClosing4427

Patchy vegetation at the field site. Credit: Cliffton P. Bueno de Mesquita.

Porazinska and her colleagues hypothesize that the relationship between plant species richness, soil biota richness, nutrient pools, and soil processes such as enzyme activity, exist in most ecosystems, but are obscured by indirect linkages between these different levels.  They hypothesize that these relationships in other ecosystems such as grasslands and forests are difficult to observe.  In these more complex ecosystems, carbon inputs into the soil form large legacy carbon pools. These carbon pools, and the ability of the soil to hold nutrient pools, fundamentally influence the abundance and richness of soil biota. In contrast, in nutrient-poor soils, such as high Rocky Mountain alpine meadows, legacy carbon pools are rare and small. Consequently, plants and soil biota interact more directly, and correlations between plant species diversity and soil biota diversity are much easier to detect.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Porazinska, D. L., Farrer, E. C., Spasojevic, M. J., Bueno de Mesquita, C. P., Sartwell, S. A., Smith, J. G., White, C. T., King, A. J., Suding, K. N. and Schmidt, S. K. (2018), Plant diversity and density predict belowground diversity and function in an early successional alpine ecosystem. Ecology, 99: 1942-1952. doi:10.1002/ecy.2420. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2018 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.