Biology and Fertility of Soils

, Volume 48, Issue 6, pp 709–725 | Cite as

Are humus forms, mesofauna and microflora in subalpine forest soils sensitive to thermal conditions?

  • J. AscherEmail author
  • G. Sartori
  • U. Graefe
  • B. Thornton
  • M. T. Ceccherini
  • G. Pietramellara
  • M. Egli
Original Paper


This study focuses on the biological and morphological development of humus profiles in forested Italian Alpine soils as a function of climate. Humus form description, systematic investigation of microannelid communities and polyphasic biochemical fingerprinting of soil microbial communities (denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis (DGGE) and phospholipid fatty acid analysis (PLFA)) were performed to compare sites differing in mean annual temperature due to different altitude and exposure. Although the soil biota showed complex responses, several differences in soil biological properties seem to be due to thermal differences. Although soil acidity also determines biological properties, it is not a state factor but rather influenced by them. The thickness of the organic layer and the acidification of the subjacent mineral horizon increased under cooler conditions (north-exposure; higher altitude), whereas the thickness of the A horizon inversely decreased. Species richness of microannelid assemblages was higher under warmer conditions (south-exposure; lower altitude) and the vertical distribution of microannelids shifted along the gradient to lower temperatures from predominant occurrence in the mineral soil to exclusive occurrence in the organic layer. Microbial biomass (total PLFA) was higher at the cooler sites; the prevalence of Gram-negative bacteria could be ascribed to their better adaptation to lower temperature, pH and nutrient contents. The δ13C signatures of the PLFA markers suggested a lower decomposition rate at the cooler sites, resulting in a lower respiratory loss and an accumulation of weakly decomposed organic material. DGGE data supported the PLFA results. Both parameters reflected the expected thermal sequence. This multidisciplinary case study provided indications of an association of climate, mesofauna and microbiota using the humus form as an overall link. More data are however needed and further investigations are encouraged.


Subalpine forest soils Humus forms Climate Microannelids Microbial community Microbial biomass 



This research was supported by a grant from the Ministero delle Politiche Agricole e Forestali (Roma, Italia; project: MEPESA).


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • J. Ascher
    • 1
    Email author
  • G. Sartori
    • 2
  • U. Graefe
    • 3
  • B. Thornton
    • 4
  • M. T. Ceccherini
    • 1
  • G. Pietramellara
    • 1
  • M. Egli
    • 5
  1. 1.Department of Plant, Soil and Environmental ScienceUniversity of FlorenceFlorenceItaly
  2. 2.Museo Tridentino di Scienze NaturaliTrentoItaly
  3. 3.IFAB Institut für Angewandte Bodenbiologie GmbHHamburgGermany
  4. 4.The James Hutton InstituteAberdeenUK
  5. 5.Department of GeographyUniversity of ZürichZürichSwitzerland

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