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Long term decomposition: the influence of litter type and soil horizon on retention of plant carbon and nitrogen in soils

Abstract

How plant inputs from above- versus below-ground affect long term carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) retention and stabilization in soils is not well known. We present results of a decade-long field study that traced the decomposition of 13C- and 15N-labeled Pinus ponderosa needle and fine root litter placed in O or A soil horizons of a sandy Alfisol under a coniferous forest. We measured the retention of litter-derived C and N in particulate (>2 mm) and bulk soil (<2 mm) fractions, as well as in density-separated free light and three mineral-associated fractions. After 10 years, the influence of slower initial mineralization of root litter compared to needle litter was still evident: almost twice as much root litter (44% of C) was retained than needle litter (22–28% of C). After 10 years, the O horizon retained more litter in coarse particulate matter implying the crucial comminution step was slower than in the A horizon, while the A horizon retained more litter in the finer bulk soil, where it was recovered in organo-mineral associations. Retention in these A horizon mineral-associated fractions was similar for roots and needles. Nearly 5% of the applied litter C (and almost 15% of the applied N) was in organo-mineral associations, which had centennial residence times and potential for long-term stabilization. Vertical movement of litter-derived C was minimal after a decade, but N was significantly more mobile. Overall, the legacy of initial litter quality influences total SOM retention; however, the potential for and mechanisms of long-term SOM stabilization are influenced not by litter type but by soil horizon.

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Acknowledgements

This work was supported as part of the Terrestrial Ecosystem Science Program by the Director, Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research, of the U.S. Department of Energy under Contract No. DE-AC02-05CH11231. We gratefully acknowledge Rachel Porras and Heather Dang for assistance with lab analyses and the UC Berkeley Center for Forestry Blodgett Forest Research Station.

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Correspondence to Caitlin E. Hicks Pries.

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Hicks Pries, C.E., Bird, J.A., Castanha, C. et al. Long term decomposition: the influence of litter type and soil horizon on retention of plant carbon and nitrogen in soils. Biogeochemistry 134, 5–16 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10533-017-0345-6

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10533-017-0345-6

Keywords

  • Litter
  • Decomposition
  • 13C
  • 15N
  • Needle
  • Fine root
  • Soil organic matter
  • Stabilization
  • Density fractionation
  • Organo-mineral associations