, Volume 114, Issue 1-3, pp 269-280
Date: 01 Nov 2012

Earthworms, litter and soil carbon in a northern hardwood forest

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Abstract

The important role of soil carbon (C) in the global C cycle has stimulated interest in better understanding the mechanisms regulating soil C storage and its stabilization. Exotic earthworm invasion of northern forest soils in North America can affect soil C pools, and we examined their effects on these mechanisms by adding 13C labeled leaf litter to adjacent northern hardwood forests with and without earthworms. Two types of labeled litter were produced, one with the 13C more concentrated in structural (S) components and the other in non-structural (NS) components, to evaluate the role of biochemical differences in soil C stabilization. Earthworm invasions have reduced soil C storage in the upper 20 cm of the soil profile by 37 %, mostly by eliminating surface organic horizons. Despite rapid mixing of litter into mineral soil and its incorporation into aggregates, mineral soil C has not increased in the presence of earthworms. Incorporation of litter C into soil and microbial biomass was not affected by biochemical differences between S versus NS labeled litter although NS litter C was assimilated more readily into earthworm biomass and S litter C into fungal hyphae. Apparently, the net effect of earthworm mixing of litter and forest floor C into mineral soil, plus stabilization of that C in aggregates, is counterbalanced by earthworm bioturbation and possible priming effects. Our results support recent arguments that biochemical recalcitrance is not a major contributor to the stabilization of soil C.

An erratum to this article can be found at http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10533-013-9867-8.