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Predator community composition is linked to soil carbon retention across a human land use gradient

Schmitz, Oswald J., Buchkowski, Robert W., Smith, Jeffrey R., Telthorst, Mark, Rosenblatt, Adam E.
Ecology 2017 v.98 no.5 pp. 1256-1265
carbon, carbon sequestration, community structure, ecosystems, food webs, humans, land use change, mathematical models, phytomass, plant communities, predators, prediction, soil arthropods, soil texture
Soil carbon (C) storage is a major component of the carbon cycle. Consensus holds that soil C uptake and storage is regulated by plant–microbe–soil interactions. However, the contribution of animals in aboveground food webs to this process has been overlooked. Using insights from prior long‐term experimentation in an old‐field ecosystem and mathematical modeling, we predicted that the amount of soil C retention within a field should increase with the proportion of active hunting predators comprising the aboveground community of active hunting and sit‐and‐wait predators. This comes about because predators with different hunting modes have different cascading effects on plants. Our test of the prediction revealed that the composition of the arthropod predator community and associated cascading effects on the plant community explained 41% of variation in soil C retention among 15 old fields across a human land use gradient. We also evaluated the potential for several other candidate factors to explain variation in soil C retention among fields, independent of among‐field variation in the predator community. These included live plant biomass, insect herbivore community composition, soil arthropod decomposer community composition, degree of land use development around the fields, field age, and soil texture. None of these candidate variables significantly explained soil C retention among the fields. The study offers a generalizable understanding of the pathways through which arthropod predator community composition can contribute to old‐field ecosystem carbon storage. This insight helps support ongoing efforts to understand and manage the effects of anthropogenic land use change on soil C storage.