The Influence of Solar Radiation, Temperature, Humidity and Water-Vapor Sorption on Microbial Degradation of Leaf Litter in the Sonoran Desert

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Decay of plant litter represents an enormous pathway for carbon (C) into the atmosphere but our understanding of the mechanisms driving this process is particularly limited in drylands. While microbes

Decay of plant litter represents an enormous pathway for carbon (C) into the atmosphere but our understanding of the mechanisms driving this process is particularly limited in drylands. While microbes are a dominant driver of litter decay in most ecosystems, their significance in drylands is not well understood and abiotic drivers such as photodegradation are commonly perceived to be more important. I assessed the significance of microbes to the decay of plant litter in the Sonoran Desert. I found that the variation in decay among 16 leaf litter types was correlated with microbial respiration rates (i.e. CO2 emission) from litter, and rates were strongly correlated with water-vapor sorption rates of litter. Water-vapor sorption during high-humidity periods activates microbes and subsequent respiration appears to be a significant decay mechanism. I also found that exposure to sunlight accelerated litter decay (i.e. photodegradation) and enhanced subsequent respiration rates of litter. The abundance of bacteria (but not fungi) on the surface of litter exposed to sunlight was strongly correlated with respiration rates, as well as litter decay, implying that exposure to sunlight facilitated activity of surface bacteria which were responsible for faster decay. I also assessed the response of respiration to temperature and moisture content (MC) of litter, as well as the relationship between relative humidity and MC. There was a peak in respiration rates between 35-40oC, and, unexpectedly, rates increased from 55 to 70oC with the highest peak at 70oC, suggesting the presence of thermophilic microbes or heat-tolerant enzymes. Respiration rates increased exponentially with MC, and MC was strongly correlated with relative humidity. I used these relationships, along with litter microclimate and C loss data to estimate the contribution of this pathway to litter C loss over 34 months. Respiration was responsible for 24% of the total C lost from litter – this represents a substantial pathway for C loss, over twice as large as the combination of thermal and photochemical abiotic emission. My findings elucidate two mechanisms that explain why microbial drivers were more significant than commonly assumed: activation of microbes via water-vapor sorption and high respiration rates at high temperatures.