Species-specific effects of live roots and shoot litter on soil decomposer abundances do not forecast plant litter-nitrogen uptake
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- Saj, S., Mikola, J. & Ekelund, F. Oecologia (2009) 161: 331. doi:10.1007/s00442-009-1380-3
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Plant species produce litter of varying quality and differ in the quality and quantity of compounds they release from live roots, which both can induce different decomposer growth in the soil. To test whether differences in decomposer growth can forecast the amount of N species acquire from plant litter, as suggested by theory, we grew individuals of three grassland plants—Holcus lanatus, Plantago lanceolata and Lotus corniculatus—in soils into which 15N-labelled litter of either Holcus, Plantago or Lotus was added. We measured the effects of live roots and litter of each species on soil microbes and their protozoan and nematode feeders, and to link decomposer growth and plant nutrient uptake, we measured the amount of N taken up by plants from the added litter. We hypothesised that those species that induce the highest growth of microbes, and especially that of microbial feeders, will also take up the highest amount of N from the litter. We found, however, that although numbers of bacterial-feeding Protozoa and nematodes were on average lower after addition of Holcus than Plantago or Lotus litter, N uptake was higher from Holcus litter. Further, although the effects on Protozoa and bacterial- and fungal-feeding nematodes did not differ between the live plants, litter-N uptake differed, with Holcus being the most efficient compared to Plantago and Lotus. Hence, although microbes and their feeders unquestionably control N mineralization in the soil, and their growth differs among plant species, these differences cannot predict differences in litter-N uptake among plant species. A likely reason is that for nutrient uptake, other species-specific plant traits, such as litter chemistry, root proliferation ability and competitiveness for soil N, override in significance the species-specific ability of plants to induce decomposer growth.