Plant and Soil

, Volume 352, Issue 1–2, pp 65–84 | Cite as

Overstory and understory vegetation interact to alter soil community composition and activity

  • Ruth Joy MitchellEmail author
  • Adian M. Keith
  • Jackie M. Potts
  • Jasmine Ross
  • Eileen Reid
  • Lorna A. Dawson
Regular Article



To test if there is an interactive effect between tree and understory species on the soil microbial community (SMC), community level physiological profiles (CLPP) and soil micro-fauna.


A replicate pot experiment with five sapling tree species (Betula pendula, Betula pubescens, Sorbus aucuparia, Quercus petraea and Pinus sylvestris) and a no-tree treatment with and without Calluna vulgaris was established. After 21 months samples were taken for phospholipid fatty acid (PLFA) analysis, CLPP and soil microfauna assessment.


There was an interactive effect of tree species and Calluna on the SMC, CLPP and nematode densities. Calluna addition changed the SMC composition (increase in fungal PLFAs) and the CLPP (lower utilisation of most carbon sources but greater utilisation of phenolic acids). A multivariate test for homogeneity of dispersion showed that while Calluna addition resulted in the presence of an altered microbial composition, it did not result in there being less variability among the samples with Calluna than among the samples without Calluna. Sapling trees with Calluna present grew less well than trees without Calluna. Structural equation modelling showed that it is possible that Calluna had an indirect effect on the SMC via below-ground tree biomass as well as a direct effect.


Interactions between trees and understory vegetation can impact on the composition of soil biota and their activity.


Carbon utilisation Community level physiological profile Enchytraeids Foundation species Nematode Plant-soil interaction PLFA Structural equation modelling 



This work was funded by the Scottish Government’s Rural and Environment Research and Analysis Directorate. We thank Julie Craig and Martin Sommerkorn for help in setting up this experiment.

Supplementary material

11104_2011_980_MOESM1_ESM.docx (12 kb)
Supplementary Table A Classification of the PLFAs as fungal, bacterial, or unclassified *. The list is limited to PLFAs extractable by the modified Bligh and Dyer method. (DOCX 12 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ruth Joy Mitchell
    • 1
    Email author
  • Adian M. Keith
    • 2
  • Jackie M. Potts
    • 3
  • Jasmine Ross
    • 1
  • Eileen Reid
    • 1
  • Lorna A. Dawson
    • 1
  1. 1.The James Hutton InstituteAberdeenUK
  2. 2.Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Lancaster Environment CentreLancasterUK
  3. 3.Biomathematics & Statistics ScotlandAberdeenUK

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