Microbial Ecology

, Volume 72, Issue 3, pp 704–716 | Cite as

Distribution of Prokaryotic Abundance and Microbial Nutrient Cycling Across a High-Alpine Altitudinal Gradient in the Austrian Central Alps is Affected by Vegetation, Temperature, and Soil Nutrients

  • Katrin HofmannEmail author
  • Andrea Lamprecht
  • Harald Pauli
  • Paul Illmer
Soil Microbiology


Studies of the altitudinal distributions of soil microorganisms are rare or have led to contradictory results. Therefore, we studied archaeal and bacterial abundance and microbial-mediated activities across an altitudinal gradient (2700 to 3500 m) on the southwestern slope of Mt. Schrankogel (Central Alps, Austria). Sampling sites distributed over the alpine (2700 to 2900 m), the alpine-nival (3000 to 3100 m), and the nival altitudinal belts (3200 to 3500 m), which are populated by characteristic plant assemblages. Bacterial and archaeal abundances were measured via quantitative real-time PCR (qPCR). Moreover, microbial biomass C, microbial activity (dehydrogenase), and enzymes involved in carbon (CM-cellulase), nitrogen (protease), phosphorus (alkaline phosphatase), and sulfur (arylsulfatase) cycling were determined. Abundances, microbial biomass C, and activities almost linearly decreased along the gradient. Archaeal abundance experienced a sharper decrease, thus pointing to pronounced sensitivity toward environmental harshness. Additionally, abundance and activities were significantly higher in soils of the alpine belt compared with those of the nival belt, whereas the alpine-nival ecotone represented a transitional area with intermediate values, thus highlighting the importance of vegetation. Archaeal abundance along the gradient was significantly related to soil temperature only, whereas bacterial abundance was significantly related to temperature and dissolved organic carbon (DOC). Soil carbon and nitrogen concentrations explained most of the variance in enzyme activities involved in the cycling of C, N, P, and S. Increasing temperature could therefore increase the abundances and activities of microorganisms either directly or indirectly via expansion of alpine vegetation to higher altitudes and increased plant cover.


Alpine soil Altitudinal gradient Archaea Bacteria Nutrient cycling Quantitative PCR 



We thank S. Farbmacher, N. Praeg, and A. O. Wagner for their help with the field work. KH thanks M. Huber and P. Wischounig for helpful discussions about statistics. This study was supported by the Austrian Climate Research Program (Project GZ B368633).

Supplementary material

248_2016_803_MOESM1_ESM.docx (1.9 mb)
ESM 1 ᅟ (DOCX 1970 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Katrin Hofmann
    • 1
    Email author
  • Andrea Lamprecht
    • 2
  • Harald Pauli
    • 2
  • Paul Illmer
    • 1
  1. 1.Institute of MicrobiologyUniversity of InnsbruckInnsbruckAustria
  2. 2.GLORIA coordination, Institute for Interdisciplinary Mountain Research, Austrian Academy of Sciences and Center for Global Change and SustainabilityUniversity of Natural Resources and Life SciencesViennaAustria

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