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Keywords:

  • carbon cycling;
  • coarse woody debris;
  • decomposition;
  • energetics;
  • litter quality;
  • soil ecology

Abstract

Recent research has shown that the broad empirical relationships used in many ecosystem models to predict carbon turnover and stabilization in soils can fail to capture differences across vegetation types or climates. Theoretically, because energy flow is fundamental to the function of decomposer organisms and ecosystems, energetics could provide complimentary fundamental constraints on soil C dynamics. Often, however, C is considered as a surrogate for energy in studies of detrital decay and C turnover in soil. Bomb calorimetry has long been used to measure stored energy in organic matter, but in detritus not all of the energy is bioavailable. Here I outline an approach to quantify the flux of bioavailable energy dissipated by resident heterotrophic communities in soil organic horizons in situ. I used the principle of energy balance together with a biogeochemical process model parameterized through calorimetric analysis of field samples. I also tested relationships between C and energy across samples of forest detritus (foliar and fine root litter, well-decayed Oea material, and woody debris), across decay stages, and between a deciduous and coniferous forest at the Harvard Forest, MA, USA. As a first approximation, energy and C concentrations were closely related (within ca. 10%), as were ratios of heterotrophic energy dissipation to C mineralization across types of detritus (within 16%). Differences in energy content and energy : C ratios were measurable in forest detritus (particularly woody vs nonwoody), but did not vary reliably enough between forest types or through detrital stages to indicate that soil C models could be improved by including energetics. Model results indicated that there are strong similarities in energy flows and storage in the O horizons of the contrasting forest types studied at this location. Future research could focus on broader patterns across climates or biomes.