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Soil organic carbon recovery in tropical tree plantations may depend on restoration of soil microbial composition and function

Bonner, Mark T.L., Herbohn, John, Gregorio, Nestor, Pasa, Arturo, Avela, Mayet S., Solano, Crisanto, Moreno, Maria Opelia Maranguit, Almendras-Ferraren, Angela, Wills, Jarrah, Shoo, Luke P., Schmidt, Susanne
Geoderma 2019 v.353 pp. 70-80
Swietenia macrophylla, biogeochemical cycles, biomass, ecosystems, indigenous species, land use, plant litter, plantations, rain forests, reforestation, soil fungi, soil organic carbon, spatial variation, topsoil, tropical plants, understory
Soil organic carbon (SOC) supports essential functions in terrestrial biomes and global biogeochemical cycles, and tropical tree plantations are often called upon to reverse deforestation-induced SOC loss. Yet the comparative efficacy of different plantation types and associated drivers of SOC restoration remain unclear. Theory suggests that higher chemical and spatial heterogeneity of plant litter should promote greater efficiency of soil microbial communities involved in SOC formation, so we hypothesised that more species-diverse tree plantations should be more effective in accelerating recovery of SOC. To test this, we compared developmental recovery of SOC and soil microbial communities between monoculture (Swietenia macrophylla King, mahogany) and highly diverse and mostly native species plantations (termed “rainforestation”). All plantation types, which were aged 15 to 20 years, only restored the composition of the soil microbial community to 20–30% of the reference, selectively logged old-growth rainforest. Contrary to our hypothesis, mahogany plantations, but not rainforestation, restored SOC and microbial function. Rainforestation shifted soil microbial composition and the composition of the understory vegetation closer to reference conditions. Soil microbial composition at all plantation sites was correlated with plant composition and functional traits, and better explained variation in SOC than land use. In particular, soil fungal PLFA biomass displayed a strong positive correlation with topsoil SOC concentration. This suggests that belowground restoration with tropical reforestation is slow relative to typical rotation times of tropical plantations (15–20 years). We conclude that reliable and rapid restoration of SOC may depend on interventions both above and below ground to re-instate the soil microbial community. This may require careful selection of plant species in combination with microbial inoculations.