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Substrate quality and not dominant plant community determines the vertical distribution and C assimilation of enchytraeids in peatlands


Briones, Maria J.I. (2020), Substrate quality and not dominant plant community determines the vertical distribution and C assimilation of enchytraeids in peatlands, Dryad, Dataset,


  1. Peatlands are important carbon (C) stores as a result of acidity, waterlogging conditions and low temperatures slowing decomposition rates. However, climate change is predicted to bring not only changes in abiotic conditions, but also the replacement of peat-forming vegetation, such as Sphagnum mosses, with vascular plants. In these systems, enchytraeid worms represent the dominant mesofaunal group, and previous climate change manipulations have shown that their abundances and vertical distribution are strongly influenced by temperature and moisture gradients, with important implications for C cycling. Therefore, determining their behavioural responses to changes in both abiotic and biotic factors is crucial to quantify their contribution to decomposition processes.
  2. We investigated the importance of vertical edaphic gradients (soil moisture and labile C) on enchytraeids total numbers, vertical distribution and feeding activities by inverting intact soil cores and hence, reversing both substrate quality but leaving the microclimatic gradients intact. This manipulative experiment was set-up in two different peatland areas, one dominated by heather (Erica mackaiana) and another by mosses (Sphagnum sp.) to determine the influence of different plant functional growth forms on these responses.
  3. Our results showed that most enchytraeid species were “stayers” (i.e. in the “Upturned cores”, they remained in the same layer where they are “Normally” located), and hence, their vertical distribution was more dependent on substrate quality than a change in microclimate. This response was more evident under drier conditions (i.e. the highest locations of the height gradient at the heather site) than at the wettest locations (i.e. the bottom of the slope and under mosses) due to more pronounced vertical gradients in substrate quality. Furthermore, radiocarbon measurements on enchytraeid tissues showed that to avoid competition among the growing populations for the limited labile resources present in the top layers, enchytraeids selected older C sources.
  4. These findings indicate that future climate change scenarios will not only bring important changes in the abiotic conditions (temperature and moisture) and biotic properties of peatlands (both vegetation composition and below-ground soil biota community structure and vertical distribution), but also alterations in the feeding preferences of key decomposers that could result in the mobilisation of previously unavailable C pools.


Ministerio de Economía y Competitividad, Award: CGL2007-61269

Ministerio de Economía y Competitividad, Award: CGL2014-54861-R