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Root chemistry and soil fauna, but not soil abiotic conditions explain the effects of plant diversity on root decomposition

Chen, Hongmei, Oram, Natalie J., Barry, Kathryn E., Mommer, Liesje, van Ruijven, Jasper, de Kroon, Hans, Ebeling, Anne, Eisenhauer, Nico, Fischer, Christine, Gleixner, Gerd, Gessler, Arthur, González Macé, Odette, Hacker, Nina, Hildebrandt, Anke, Lange, Markus, Scherer-Lorenzen, Michael, Scheu, Stefan, Oelmann, Yvonne, Wagg, Cameron, Wilcke, Wolfgang, Wirth, Christian, Weigelt, Alexandra
Oecologia 2017 v.185 no.3 pp. 499-511
Sarcoptiformes, chemistry, ecological function, environmental factors, grasses, grasslands, legumes, lignin, magnesium, models, potassium, soil, soil fauna, species diversity, structural equation modeling
Plant diversity influences many ecosystem functions including root decomposition. However, due to the presence of multiple pathways via which plant diversity may affect root decomposition, our mechanistic understanding of their relationships is limited. In a grassland biodiversity experiment, we simultaneously assessed the effects of three pathways—root litter quality, soil biota, and soil abiotic conditions—on the relationships between plant diversity (in terms of species richness and the presence/absence of grasses and legumes) and root decomposition using structural equation modeling. Our final structural equation model explained 70% of the variation in root mass loss. However, different measures of plant diversity included in our model operated via different pathways to alter root mass loss. Plant species richness had a negative effect on root mass loss. This was partially due to increased Oribatida abundance, but was weakened by enhanced root potassium (K) concentration in more diverse mixtures. Equally, grass presence negatively affected root mass loss. This effect of grasses was mostly mediated via increased root lignin concentration and supported via increased Oribatida abundance and decreased root K concentration. In contrast, legume presence showed a net positive effect on root mass loss via decreased root lignin concentration and increased root magnesium concentration, both of which led to enhanced root mass loss. Overall, the different measures of plant diversity had contrasting effects on root decomposition. Furthermore, we found that root chemistry and soil biota but not root morphology or soil abiotic conditions mediated these effects of plant diversity on root decomposition.