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Effects of the ecological restoration practices of prescribed burning and mechanical thinning on soil microbial enzyme activities and leaf litter decomposition

Rietl, Anthony J., Jackson, Colin R.
Soil biology & biochemistry 2012 v.50 pp. 47-57
Quercus falcata, biodegradation, ecological restoration, enzyme activity, fires, forests, leaves, lignin peroxidase, microbial activity, monophenol monooxygenase, nitrogen, phosphorus, plant litter, prescribed burning, pruning, soil ecology, soil enzymes, soil organic matter, Mississippi
The effects of ecological restoration on belowground processes such as decomposition are generally unknown. To assess the immediate effects of prescribed fire and mechanical thinning on belowground processes, we measured the activities of five extracellular enzymes (phosphatase, β-glucosidase, β-N-acetylglucosaminidase, phenol oxidase, and lignin-peroxidase) in soils and on decomposing Quercus falcata leaf litter in unburned, burned, and burned and thinned plots in a mesic forest in northern Mississippi. Decomposition rates of Q. falcata leaf litter were also assessed at each plot. Soil phosphatase activity decreased after a prescribed burn and was related to an increase in soil organic matter in plots that had been burned. Soil β-N-acetylglucosaminidase activity increased after a burn, and was related to a decrease in leaf litter. Leaf litter enzyme activity showed no consistent patterns amongst treatments, or between individual enzymes, while decomposition rates of leaf litter were slightly accelerated in the treatment plots, but not significantly so. Decomposition rates were related to cumulative enzyme activity, with phenol oxidase and lignin-peroxidase having the highest apparent efficiencies in degrading the leaf material. Overall, the microbial degradation of Q. falcata leaf litter was more efficient in plots that were burned and thinned than in the other plots. Increases in the efficiency of litter decomposition coupled with reductions in litter inputs due to canopy thinning likely allows for increased solar penetration to the soil, and could promote the restoration of the shade-intolerant species that once dominated the understory. Post-burn increases in β-N-acetylglucosaminidase activity and decreases in phosphatase activity also suggest a potential shift in the soil community from phosphorus limitation to nitrogen limitation following a fire.