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Global change, soil biodiversity, and nitrogen cycling in terrestrial ecosystems: three case studies


Professor M.J. Swift, tel +254/ 2 622584/659, fax +254/ 2 622733/521159, e-mail


The relative contribution of different soil organism groups to nutrient cycling has been quantified for a number of ecosystems. Some functions, particularly within the N-cycle, are carried out by very specific organisms. Others, including those of decomposition and nutrient release from organic inputs are, however, mediated by a diverse group of bacteria, protozoa, fungi and invertebrate animals. Many authors have hypothesized that there is a high degree of equivalence and flexibility in function within this decomposer community and thence a substantial extent of redundancy in species richness and resilience in functional capacity. Three case studies are presented to examine the relationship between soil biodiversity and nitrogen cycling under global change in ecosystem types from three latitudes, i.e. tundra, temperate grassland and tropical rainforest.

In all three ecosystems evidence exists for the potential impact of global change factors (temperature change, CO2 enrichment, land-use-change) on the composition and diversity of the soil community as well as on various aspects of the nitrogen and other cycles. There is, however, very little unequivocal evidence of direct causal linkage between species richness and nutrient cycling efficiency. Most of the changes detected are shifts in the influence of major functional groups of the soil biota (e.g. between microflora and fauna in decomposition). There seem to be few data, however, from which to judge the significance of changes in diversity within functional groups. Nonetheless the soil biota are hypothesized to be a sensitive link between plant detritus and the availability of nutrients to plant uptake. Any factors affecting the quantity or quality of plant detritus is likely to change this link. Rigorous experimentation on the relationships between soil species richness and the regulation or resilience of nutrient cycles under global change thus remains a high priority.