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The detritus food-web and the diversity of soil fauna as indicators of disturbance regimes in agro-ecosystems

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An ongoing study initiated in August 1990 investigated the effects of disturbances (organic mulching, cultivation, herbicides) on the detritus food-web in annual (maize) and perennial (asparagus) cropping systems. In this paper we attempt to simultaneously assess the functional and taxonomic structure of various components of this food-web. Biota in the perennial system was the most responsive to disturbance. The microflora was strongly influenced by mulching, and through tritrophic effects caused increases in top predatory but not most microbe-feeding nematodes. These effects have become increasingly apparent as the study has progressed and, in the asparagus site, have worked their way down the soil profile over time. Cultivation in the asparagus site caused large increases in bacterial-feeding nematodes, probably due to the high weed levels which developed during the winter months under that treatment. Evidence appears to exist for a cascade effect operating due to top down effects of nematodes on lower trophic levels. Ordination analysis of the nematode data demonstrated that nematode populations were more closely related to the state of environmental factors at earlier samplings than at contemporary samplings, and that the linkages between the nematode and environmental data sets strengthened over time. For both the nematode and soil-associated beetle data distinct assemblages of organisms were found in the mulched plots; distinct assemblages of nematode genera also emerged in the cultivated asparagus plots after two years. The soil-associated macrofauna was usually linked to high weed and surface organic residue levels. Species diversity of soil associated nematodes was not particularly responsive to disturbance while that of the soil-associated beetles was strongly enhanced by mulching and (sometimes) high weed levels. Approaches based on either functional group or species composition data emerged in our study as reasonably sensitive indicators for assessing the response of the soil biota to disturbance.

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Wardle, D.A., Yeates, G.W., Watson, R.N. et al. The detritus food-web and the diversity of soil fauna as indicators of disturbance regimes in agro-ecosystems. Plant Soil 170, 35–43 (1995). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02183053

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Key words

  • agro-ecosystem
  • diversity
  • food-web
  • macrofauna
  • nematode
  • trophic interaction