, Volume 94, Issue 1, pp 12-24
Date: 08 Nov 2006

Cadaver decomposition in terrestrial ecosystems

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Abstract

A dead mammal (i.e. cadaver) is a high quality resource (narrow carbon:nitrogen ratio, high water content) that releases an intense, localised pulse of carbon and nutrients into the soil upon decomposition. Despite the fact that as much as 5,000 kg of cadaver can be introduced to a square kilometre of terrestrial ecosystem each year, cadaver decomposition remains a neglected microsere. Here we review the processes associated with the introduction of cadaver-derived carbon and nutrients into soil from forensic and ecological settings to show that cadaver decomposition can have a greater, albeit localised, effect on belowground ecology than plant and faecal resources. Cadaveric materials are rapidly introduced to belowground floral and faunal communities, which results in the formation of a highly concentrated island of fertility, or cadaver decomposition island (CDI). CDIs are associated with increased soil microbial biomass, microbial activity (C mineralisation) and nematode abundance. Each CDI is an ephemeral natural disturbance that, in addition to releasing energy and nutrients to the wider ecosystem, acts as a hub by receiving these materials in the form of dead insects, exuvia and puparia, faecal matter (from scavengers, grazers and predators) and feathers (from avian scavengers and predators). As such, CDIs contribute to landscape heterogeneity. Furthermore, CDIs are a specialised habitat for a number of flies, beetles and pioneer vegetation, which enhances biodiversity in terrestrial ecosystems.