Chemical changes to nonaggregated particulate soil organic matter following grassland-to-woodland transition in a subtropical savanna



[1] Encroachment of thorn woodlands into grasslands of southern Texas has resulted in greater aboveground and belowground biomass and greater soil organic carbon (SOC) stocks. Our previous studies showed that a large percentage of the SOC accrued under invading woody clusters was not stabilized within protective soil aggregates or on mineral-surfaces. Here we evaluated lignin and cutin- and suberin-derived substituted fatty acid (SFA) chemistry to determine if the accrual of nonaggregated particulate organic matter (POM) in woodlands was promoted by inherently greater recalcitrance of tissues from woody versus grass species, and if there was selective input of aboveground versus belowground plant carbon to POM. Woody clusters exhibited reduced concentrations of cutin-derived SFA and cinnamyl phenols within surface litter compared to fresh aboveground plant material. However, root litter exhibited relatively minor changes in biopolymer chemistry compared to fresh root tissue, suggesting it was either more stable or was refreshed at a greater rate. Between 14 and 105 years of woody plant encroachment, SFA in free POM fractions appeared to be consistently derived from root material while SFA within intraaggregate POM were increasingly derived from cutin sources. In addition, the shift from herbaceous to woody input was accompanied by enrichment in the amount of cutin and suberin-derived aliphatics with respect to lignin in both root and surface litter as well as nonaggregated POM. Woody plant encroachment at this site results in the rapid accrual of POM pools that are biochemically recalcitrant, providing a mechanism by which soil organic carbon can accumulate in this sandy soil system. Our results also lend further credence to the hypothesis that aliphatic biopolymers, particularly root-derived suberin, are important components of long-term soil organic carbon stabilization.