, Volume 95, Issue 2-3, pp 323-333
Date: 14 Jul 2009

Hydraulic redistribution may stimulate decomposition

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Abstract

Roots influence root litter decomposition through multiple belowground processes. Hydraulic lift or redistribution (HR) by plants is one such process that creates diel drying–rewetting cycles in soil. However, it is unclear if this phenomenon influences decomposition. Since decomposition in deserts is constrained by low soil moisture and is stimulated when dry soils are rewetted, we hypothesized that diel drying–rewetting, via HR, stimulates decomposition of root litter. We quantified the decomposition of root litter from two desert shrubs, Artemisia tridentata ssp. tridentata and Sarcobatus vermiculatus, during spring and summer in field soil core treatments designed to have abundant roots and high magnitude HR cycles (DenseRoot) or few roots and low magnitude HR (SparseRoot). To help explain our decomposition results, we not only evaluated HR, but multiple factors (i.e., soil moisture, soil temperature, dissolved soil organic C concentrations, and litter chemistry) that are often influenced by roots and regulate decomposition. Root length density in the DenseRoot treatment was at least four times higher than in the SparseRoot treatment for both Artemisia and Sarcobatus by the beginning of spring. During spring and summer, there was only one instance when decomposition rates differed between the treatments. This occurred in soils beneath Artemisia in the summer when decomposition rates were 25% higher in the DenseRoot than in the SparseRoot treatments. Of the factors evaluated, only a threefold increase in the magnitude of drying–rewetting cycles created by HR in the DenseRoot compared to the SparseRoot treatment coincided with this change in decomposition. Additionally, the lower soil Ψw present in the Artemisia DenseRoot treatment should have resulted in a decline in decomposition rates, but the presence of higher magnitude HR cycles seemed to nullify this effect. There was no evidence of this result in Sarcobatus soils, possibly due to Sarcobatus only creating HR cycles for a short period of time in the summer before soil Ψw dropped below −7 MPa. As hypothesized, our results suggest that the presence of high magnitude HR cycles stimulated decomposition. The most plausible mechanism for this stimulation; however, was not solely due to HR drying–rewetting cycles but HR creating a diel rhythm of root-driven water fluxes and rhizodeposition. These together heightened microbial activity and, subsequently, enhanced the decomposition of surrounding litter. Our findings are the first field data supporting suggestions that HR influences belowground ecosystem processes and demonstrates that this relationship is seasonally variable.