, Volume 161, Issue 1, pp 113-123
Date: 19 May 2009

Links between plant community composition, soil organic matter quality and microbial communities in contrasting tundra habitats

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Plant communities, soil organic matter and microbial communities are predicted to be interlinked and to exhibit concordant patterns along major environmental gradients. We investigated the relationships between plant functional type composition, soil organic matter quality and decomposer community composition, and how these are related to major environmental variation in non-acid and acid soils derived from calcareous versus siliceous bedrocks, respectively. We analysed vegetation, organic matter and microbial community compositions from five non-acidic and five acidic heath sites in alpine tundra in northern Europe. Sequential organic matter fractionation was used to characterize organic matter quality and phospholipid fatty acid analysis to detect major variation in decomposer communities. Non-acidic and acidic heaths differed substantially in vegetation composition, and these disparities were associated with congruent shifts in soil organic matter and microbial communities. A high proportion of forbs in the vegetation was positively associated with low C:N and high soluble N:phenolics ratios in soil organic matter, and a high proportion of bacteria in the microbial community. On the contrary, dwarf shrub-rich vegetation was associated with high C:N and low soluble N:phenolics ratios, and a high proportion of fungi in the microbial community. Our study demonstrates a strong link between the plant community composition, soil organic matter quality, and microbial community composition, and that differences in one compartment are paralleled by changes in others. Variation in the forb-shrub gradient of vegetation may largely dictate variations in the chemical quality of organic matter and decomposer communities in tundra ecosystems. Soil pH, through its direct and indirect effects on plant and microbial communities, seems to function as an ultimate environmental driver that gives rise to and amplifies the interactions between above- and belowground systems.

Communicated by Stephan Hättenschwiler.