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The influence of moisture availability on terrestrial ecosystems: effects on soil animal communities along a regional/global scale climate gradient




Sylvain, Zachary Adam, author
Wall, Diana H., advisor
Cotrufo, M. Francesca, committee member
Kelly, Eugene F., committee member
Knapp, Alan K., committee member
Seastedt, Timothy R., committee member

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Earth's climate is being altered at an alarming rate, and the consequences of these changes on the planet's ecosystems are unclear. In addition to increased warming due to rising CO2 concentrations, alterations to precipitation patterns will influence soil moisture availability in terrestrial ecosystems and this will have important consequences for plant growth and the ability of soil systems to perform functions such as decomposition and nutrient cycling. The effects on soil systems are especially poorly understood, partly due to the many interactions between environmental conditions and the numerous species found within soil ecosystems, ranging from microbial organisms such as bacteria, archaea and fungi to soil animals including mites and nematodes. With chapter 2, I provide an overview of the role of soil biodiversity and the implications climate and land-use changes may have for ecosystems as a consequence of their effects on soil biodiversity. I then examine the current state of understanding for the influence of soil moisture availability on plant and soil communities of temperate ecosystems in chapter 3, and highlight challenges for future research such as the inclusion of diversity metrics and soil animal community responses in climate change experiments as well as studies that operate at scales larger than single sites in order to better capture the dynamics of ecosystem changes. My research focused on one aspect of climate change, the alteration of soil moisture availability within ecosystems due to changes in precipitation regimes, and whether it affected soil organisms, particularly soil mites and nematodes (Chapter 4 of this dissertation). These two groups were selected because of their high abundances and diversity within soil ecosystems, their dependence upon soil water availability as a consequence of life history traits and their contributions to decomposition and nutrient cycling processes. To examine the effects of changing moisture availability on communities of mites and nematodes I analyzed soil samples along a large scale regional/global climate gradient made up of four long-term ecological research (LTER) sites including Konza Prairie LTER (KNZ), Kansas, Shortgrass Steppe LTER (SGS), Colorado, Jornada Basin LTER (JRN), New Mexico and McMurdo Dry Valleys LTER (MCM), Antarctica. I established elevation transects across hill slopes to obtain landscape-scale gradients of soil moisture availability within each of these ecosystems and sampled existing experimental manipulations of moisture availability from 2009-2011. Mites and nematodes were sorted to trophic groups to determine their ecological role and how changes to their abundances may affect ecosystems. Mite and nematode abundances responded strongly to changes in moisture availability. Across the large-scale climate gradient of all four sites, a positive non-linear response was found with particularly large increases in animal abundances corresponding to incremental moisture increases at the lower limits of moisture availability. Within each of the ecosystems, however, the responses of soil animal trophic group abundances to moisture availability were very similar and were largely negative. In chapter 5 of this dissertation, I further explore the effects of soil moisture and top-down or bottom-up community dynamics on mite and nematode abundances. To do this, I constructed a structural equation model examining the direct and indirect effects of soil moisture availability and trophic interactions on soil animal trophic group abundances. Results of this model suggest that soil moisture strongly controls populations of these organisms. Additionally, predatory mite and nematode trophic groups have top-down controls on lower trophic groups, although these interactions do not appear to be due to predation and instead suggest the influence of additional, unmeasured environmental factors acting indirectly on lower-level soil animal trophic groups. With this dissertation, I demonstrate that changes to soil moisture regimes can have important effects on soil animal communities. A review of the literature (Chapter 3 of this dissertation) showed altered soil moisture availability had the clearest effects on plants, with effects on soil organisms being more idiosyncratic, likely as a result of stronger indirect than direct effects. Experimental evidence along a regional/global climate gradient of two desert and two grassland sites (Chapter 4 of this dissertation) show that increases to moisture availability have strong positive effects on mite and nematode communities, especially at low levels of moisture availability across this large, multi-site scale. At smaller scales (within individual ecosystems) this response becomes weaker and results in declines to animal groups at most sites. These results suggest that as precipitation regimes are altered as a consequence of climate change, the resultant alterations to soil moisture availability may have important feedbacks to terrestrial ecosystems. Observed changes to trophic group structuring in response to changes in moisture availability (Chapters 4 and 5 of this dissertation) show that food webs may be restructured due to future changes in moisture availability, leading to increases to root herbivory and increasing the amount of energy flowing through bacterial rather than fungal decomposition pathways. These changes to food webs can result in alterations to nutrient cycling pathways and shifts in carbon allocation within plant communities, which will further influence ecosystem dynamics.


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global change
soil moisture
soil ecology
community ecology


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