, Volume 111, Issue 1–3, pp 151–167 | Cite as

Land-use change in a tropical mountain rainforest region of southern Ecuador affects soil microorganisms and nutrient cycling



Over the past decades, the tropical mountain rainforest of southern Ecuador has been threatened by conversion to cattle pastures. Frequently, these pastures are invaded by bracken fern and abandoned when bracken becomes dominant. Changes in land-use (forest–pasture–abandoned pasture) can affect soil microorganisms and their physiological responses with respect to soil carbon and nutrient cycling. In situ investigations on litter decomposition and soil respiration as well as biogeochemical characterization of the soil were carried out to identify the driving factors behind. The conversion of forest to pasture induced a pronounced increase in CO2–C effluxes to 12.2 Mg ha−1 a−1 which did not decrease after abandonment. Soil microbial activity and biomass showed a different pattern with lowest values at forest and abandoned pasture sites. With 3445 mg kg−1 (0–5 cm) microbial biomass carbon (MBC by CFE-method), the active pasture had a more than three times higher value than forest and abandoned pasture, which was among the highest in tropical pasture soils. A shift in the microbial community structure (phospholipid fatty acid, PLFA) was also induced by the establishment of pasture land; the relative abundance of fungi and Gram-negative bacteria increased. PLFA fingerprints of the forest organic layer were more similar to pasture than to forest mineral soil. Chemical properties (pH value, exchangeable cations) were the main factors influencing the respective microbial structure. Bracken-invasion resulted in a decrease in the quantity and quality of above- and belowground biomass. The lower organic substance and nutrient availability induced a significant decline in microbial biomass and activity. After pasture abandonment, these differences in soil microbial function were not accompanied by pronounced shifts in the community structure and in soil pH as was shown for the conversion to pasture. A disconnection between microbial structure and function was identified. Similar soil CO2–C effluxes between active and abandoned pasture sites might be explained by an underestimation of the effluxes from the active pasture site. All measurements were carried out between grass tussocks where fine-root density was about 2.6 times lower than below tussocks. Thus, lower proportions of root respiration were expected than below tussocks. Overall, soil microorganisms responded differently to changes in land-use from forest to pasture and from pasture to abandoned pasture resulting in pronounced changes of carbon and nutrient cycling and hence of ecosystem functioning.


Land use change Litterbag Soil respiration Soil microbial community structure Gross N mineralization Bracken fern Setaria sphacelata 



The authors gratefully acknowledge the financial support by the German Foundation of Research (DFG) for the subproject B2.1 within the DFG research Unit 816 “Biodiversity and Sustainable Management of a Megadiverse Mountain Ecosystem in South Ecuador” (HA 4597/1-1). We thank the Ecuadorian co-workers for their field assistance, Willian Rodriguez for measuring soil respiration rates, Konstantin Greipl for field and laboratory assistance, and Mirco Nedos for curve fitting. We especially thank Manuela Unger for her skilful and productive laboratory work. Special thanks go to the editor and to the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on the manuscript.


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of Soil Science and Site EcologyDresden University of TechnologyTharandtGermany

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