Original Paper

Biology and Fertility of Soils

, Volume 45, Issue 1, pp 73-81

First online:

A comparison of soil food webs beneath C3- and C4-dominated grasslands

  • Mathew DornbushAffiliated withDepartment of Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Email author 
  • , Cynthia CambardellaAffiliated withUSDA/ARS National Soil Tilth Laboratory
  • , Elaine InghamAffiliated withSoil Foodweb, Inc.
  • , James RaichAffiliated withDepartment of Ecology, Evolution and Organismal Biology, Iowa State University

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Soil food webs influence organic matter mineralization and plant nutrient availability, but the potential for plants to capitalize on these processes by altering soil food webs has received little attention. We compared soil food webs beneath C3- and C4-grass plantings by measuring bacterial and fungal biomass and protozoan and nematode abundance repeatedly over 2 years. We tested published expectations that C3 detritus and root chemistry (low lignin/N) favor bacterial-based food webs and root-feeding nematodes, whereas C4 detritus (high lignin/N) and greater production favor fungal decomposers and predatory nematodes. We also hypothesized that seasonal differences in plant growth between the two grassland types would generate season-specific differences in soil food webs. In contrast to our expectations, bacterial biomass and ciliate abundance were greater beneath C4 grasses, and we found no differences in fungi, amoebae, flagellates, or nematodes. Soil food webs varied significantly among sample dates, but differences were unrelated to aboveground plant growth. Our findings, in combination with previous work, suggest that preexisting soil properties moderate the effect of plant inputs on soil food webs. We hypothesize that high levels of soil organic matter provide a stable environment and energy source for soil organisms and thus buffer soil food webs from short-term dynamics of plant communities.


Bacteria Fungi Grasslands Nematodes Protozoa