Biology and Fertility of Soils

, Volume 47, Issue 5, pp 555–566 | Cite as

Humus forms, organic matter stocks and carbon fractions in forest soils of northwestern Italy

  • Eleonora Bonifacio
  • Gloria Falsone
  • Marta Petrillo
Original Paper


Humus forms may be the first tool to assess qualitatively organic matter turnover in soils; as such they should be related to the stocks of organic C a soil can store, to the characteristics of organic matter that affect its stability and, more generally, to the factors of soil formation. In this work, we tested these hypotheses in 27 forest soils of northwestern Italy. Site variables representing the pedogenic factors allowed classifying the plots into three clusters, which were significantly different for soil and humus types. The average stocks of organic C in the humic episolum (organic and top mineral horizons) ranged from 2.7 kg m−2 in Eumulls to 9.5 kg m−2 in Amphimulls. A clear trend in C stocks was visible and related both to the increasing presence of organic layers where the environmental conditions do not favour a rapid turnover of organic matter and to the good mixing of organics and minerals in “bio-macrostructured” A horizons. The characteristics of organic matter were also linked to humus forms: The proportion of humified complex substances was the highest in the most active forms, and conversely, non-humified extracted substances formed a considerable part of organic matter only where the environmental conditions limit organic matter degradation. Humus forms seem therefore to reflect several mechanisms of organic matter stabilisation and are clearly related to the capacity of the soil to store C.


Organic matter stability Alpine areas Soil types Carbon storage 



The data of this paper were collected within the CONECOFOR programme (Programma Nazionale per il Controllo degli Ecosistemi Forestali), co-funded by the European Commission following the EU Regulation Forest Focus (n. 2152/2003).


  1. Andreetta A, Ciampalini R, Moretti P, Vingiani S, Poggio G, Matteucci G, Tescari F, Carnicelli S (2011) Forest humus forms as potential indicators of soil carbon storage in Mediterranean environments. Biol Fertil Soils 47:31–40. doi: 10.1007/s00374-010-0499-z CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Andresen LC, Michelsen A, Jonasson S, Schmidt IK, Mikkelsen TN, Ambus P, Beier C (2010) Plant nutrient mobilization in temperate heathland responds to elevated CO2, temperature and drought. Plant Soil 328:381–396CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Aubert M, Margerie P, Ernoult A, Decaëns T, Bureau F (2006) Variability and heterogeneity of humus forms at stand level: comparison between pure beech and mixed beech-hornbeam forest. Ann For Sci 63:177–188CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bernier N (1996) Altitudinal changes in humus form dynamics in a spruce forest at the montane level. Plant Soil 178:1–28CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Berthelin J, Babel U, Toutain F (2006) History of soil biology. In: Warkentin BP (ed) Footprints in the soil. people and ideas in soil history. Elsevier, Amsterdam, pp 279–306Google Scholar
  6. Blake GR, Hartge KH (1986) Bulk density. In: Klute A (ed) Methods of Soil Analysis. Part 1. Second edition. Agron Monogr 9:363–375Google Scholar
  7. Bonifacio E, Santoni S, Cudlin P, Zanini E (2008) Effect of dominant ground vegetation on soil organic matter quality in a declining mountain spruce forest of Central Europe. Boreal Environ Res 13:113–120Google Scholar
  8. Brêthes A, Brun JJ, Jabiol B, Ponge JF, Toutain F (1995) Classification of forest humus forms: a French proposal. Ann Sci For 52:535–546CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Broll G, Brauckmann HJ, Overesch M, Junge B, Erber C, Milbert G, Baize D, Nachtergaele F (2006) Topsoil characterization—recommendations for revision and expansion of the FAO-Draft (1998) with emphasis on humus forms and biological features. J Plant Nutr Soil Sci 169:453–461CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Cagnazzi B, Marchisio C (1998) Atlante climatologico del Piemonte. In: Precipitazioni e Temperature, Collana di Studi Climatologici in Piemonte, CD produced by Regione Piemonte – Università di Torino, TorinoGoogle Scholar
  11. Cassagne N, Bal-Serin MC, Gers C, Gauquelin T (2004) Changes in humus properties and collembola communities following the replanting of beech forests with spruce. Pedobiologia 48:267–276CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Cerli C, Celi L, Kaiser K, Guggenberger G, Johansson M-B, Cignetti A, Zanini E (2008) Changes in humic substances along an age sequence of Norway spruce stands planted on former agricultural land. Org Geochem 39:1269–1280CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Chauvat M, Ponge JF, Wolters V (2007) Humus structure during a spruce forest rotation: quantitative changes and relationship to soil biota. Eur J Soil Sci 58:625–631CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Cheshire MV (1979) Nature and Origin of Carbohydrates in Soil. Academic, LondonGoogle Scholar
  15. Chesworth W (1992) Weathering systems. In: Martini IP, Chesworth W (eds) Weathering, soils and paleosols. Elsevier, Amsterdam, pp 19–40Google Scholar
  16. Descheemaeker K, Muys B, Nyssen J, Sauwens W, Haile M, Poesen J, Raes D, Deckers J (2009) Humus form development during forest restoration in exclosures of the Tigray highlands, Northern Ethiopia. Restor Ecol 17:280–289CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Duchaufour P (1997) Abrégé de pédologie, 5th edn. Masson, ParisGoogle Scholar
  18. IUSS, ISRIC, FAO (2006) World Reference Base for Soil Resources—a Framework for International Classification, Correlation and Communication. World Soil Resources Report 103, FAO, Rome.Google Scholar
  19. Frouz J, Novakova A (2005) Development of soil microbial properties in topsoil layer during spontaneous succession in heaps after brown coal mining in relation to humus microstructure development. Geoderma 129:54–64CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Green RN, Trowbridge RL, Klinka K (1993) Towards a taxonomic classification of humus forms. For Sci 39:1–49Google Scholar
  21. Hollis JM, Woods SM (1989) The measurement and estimation of saturated soil hydraulic conductivity. SSLRC Report for MAFF Project, Soil Survey and Land Research Centre, SilsoeGoogle Scholar
  22. Iimura Y, Fujimoto M, Hirota M, Tamura K, Higashi T, Yonebayashi K, Fujitake N (2010) Effects of ecological succession on surface mineral horizons in Japanese volcanic ash soil. Geoderma 159:122–130CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Jabiol B, Zanella A, Englisch A, Hager H, Katzensteiner K, de Waal RW (2004) Towards an European Classification of Terrestrial Humus forms. Accessed 14 December 2010
  24. Jenny H (1941) Factors of Soil Formation. McGraw-Hill, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  25. Jastrow JD, Amonette JE, Bailey VE (2007) Mechanisms controlling soil carbon turnover and their potential application for enhancing carbon sequestration. Clim Change 80:5–23CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. King RF, Dromph KM, Bardgett RD (2002) Changes in species evenness of litter have no effect on decomposition processes. Soil Biol Biochem 34:1959–1963CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Kögel-Knabner I, Ekschmitt K, Flessa H, Guggenberger G, Matzner E, Marschner B, von Lützow M (2008) An integrative approach of organic matter stabilization in temperate soils: Linking chemistry, physics, and biology. J Plant Nutr Soil Sci 171:5–13CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Kooijman AM, Jongejans J, Sevink J (2005) Parent material effects on Mediterranean woodland ecosystems in NE Spain. Catena 59:55–68CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Loranger G, Ponge JF, Lavelle P (2003) Humus forms in two secondary semi-evergreen tropical forests. Eur J Soil Sci 54:17–24CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Lundström US, Van Breemen N, Bain D (2000) The podzolisation process. A review. Geoderma 94:91–107CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Peltier A, Ponge JF, Jordana R, Arino A (2001) Humus forms in Mediterranean shrublands with Aleppo pine. Soil Sci Soc Am J 65:884–896CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Podravsky V (2006) Logging and forest decline effects on the surface humus horizons in the Sumava Mts. J For Sci 52:439–445Google Scholar
  33. Ponge JF, Patzel N, Delhaye L, Devigne E, Levieux C, Béros P, Wittebroodt R (1999) Interactions between earthworms, litter and trees in an old-growth beech forest. Biol Fertil Soils 29:360–370CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Salmon S, Mantel J, Frizzera L, Zanella A (2006) Changes in humus forms and soil animal communities in two developmental phases of Norway spruce on acidic substrate. For Ecol Manag 237:47–56CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Salmon S, Frizzera L, Camaret S (2008) Linking forest dynamics to richness and assemblage of soil zoological groups and to soil mineralization processes. For Ecol Manag 256:1612–1623CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Schnitzer M (1982) Organic matter characterization. In: Page AL et al. (eds) Methods of Soil Analysis. Part 2. 2nd edn. Agron. Monogr. 9. ASA and SSSA, Madison, pp 581–594Google Scholar
  37. Seeber J, Seeber GUH (2004) Effects of land-use changes on humus forms on alpine pastureland (Central Alps, Tyrol). Geoderma 124:215–222CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Sevink J, Verstraten JM, Jongejans J (1998) The relevance of humus forms for land degradation in Mediterranean mountainous areas. Geomorphology 23:285–292CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Sollins P, Homann P, Caldwell BA (1996) Stabilization and destabilization of soil organic matter: mechanisms and controls. Geoderma 74:65–105CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Turk JK, Goforth BR, Graham RC, Kendrick KJ (2008) Soil morphology of a debris flow chronosequence in a coniferous forest, Southern California, USA. Geoderma 146:157–165CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. UN/ECE ICP Forests (2006) Manual on Methods and Criteria for Harmonized Sampling, Assessment, Monitoring and Analysis of the Effects of Air Pollution on Forests. 2006 edition. Manual part IIIa on Sampling and Analysis of Soils. Programme co-ordinating centre. Accessed 14 December 2010
  42. Vesterdal L, Schmidt IK, Callesen I, Nilsson LO, Gundersen P (2008) Carbon and nitrogen in forest floor and mineral soil under six common European tree species. For Ecol Manag 255:35–48CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. von Lützow M, Kogel-Knabner I, Ekschmittb K, Flessa H, Guggenberger G, Matzner E, Marschner B (2007) SOM fractionation methods: relevance to functional pools and to stabilization mechanisms. Soil Biol Biochem 39:2183–2207CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Wetterstedt JTM, Persson T, Ågren GI (2010) Temperature sensitivity and substrate quality in soil organic matter decomposition: results of an incubation study with three substrates. Glob Chang Biol 16:1806–1819CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Wolters V (2000) Invertebrate control on soil organic matter stability. Biol Fertil Soils 31:1–19CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Zanella A, Tomasi M, De Siena C, Frizzera L, Jabiol B, Nicolini G (2001) Humus Forestali. Manuale di Ecologia per il Riconoscimento e l'Interpretazione. Applicazione alle Faggete. Centro di Ecologia Alpina, TrentoGoogle Scholar
  47. Zanelli R, Egli M, Mirabella A, Giaccai D, Fitze P (2006) Influence of laurophyllous species, Castanea sativa and Quercetum-Betuletum vegetation on organic matter in soils in southern Switzerland and northern Italy. Geoderma 136:723–737CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Eleonora Bonifacio
    • 1
  • Gloria Falsone
    • 1
    • 2
  • Marta Petrillo
    • 1
  1. 1.Università degli Studi di Torino, DIVAPRAGrugliascoItaly
  2. 2.Università di Bologna, DISTABolognaItaly

Personalised recommendations