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The combined effect of termite bioturbation and water erosion on soil nutrient stocks along a tropical forest catena in Ghana

Kristensen, Jeppe Aagaard, Boëtius, Susan Helene, Abekoe, Mark, Awadzi, Theodore W., Breuning-Madsen, Henrik
Catena 2019 v.178 pp. 307-312
Formicidae, Isoptera, bioturbation, calcium, catenas, cations, chemical bases, ecosystems, fine-textured soils, gravel, landscape ecology, landscapes, macroinvertebrates, magnesium, mining, phosphorus, potassium, savannas, soil fertility, soil heterogeneity, soil horizons, soil nutrients, tropical forests, water erosion, Ghana
In the tropical moist semi-deciduous forests of West Africa, soil catenas with extremely gravel-rich soil horizons at the summits and upper slopes and largely gravel-free profiles at the lower slope are common. Previous investigations have suggested that these gravel layers are the result of macro-invertebrates mining of fine-grained soil material from the subsoil leaving behind the gravel, to build galleries at the surface subsequently exposing it to water erosion transport downslope. We examined the indirect effect of this process on the distribution along a soil catena of crucial base cations (Ca2+, Mg2+, K+) and plant available phosphorous (P), which is often growth-limiting in these tropical ecosystems. We found that the export of fine-grained soil material at the top of the catena reduces the soil stocks (to 1 m) of these elements by up to 60%, while the soil fertility downslope did not change significantly. This important long-term (100–1000 yr scale) reduction in soil fertility at the top of slopes resulting from bioturbation and water erosion is overlooked in contemporary literature, which primarily focus on the beneficial impact termites and ants have on ecosystem functioning in more level savannah landscapes. As the type of catena studied is widespread across tropical environments, this effect is likely ecologically substantial. Future research should aim at understanding such long-term consequences of bioturbation on landscape ecology as well as soil heterogeneity and fertility, so we do not overlook potential negative ecosystem effects.