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Summary

Forest soils contain a large amount of organic matter (OM) and therefore represent a considerable carbon reserve. The amount of OM sequestered in the soil is dependent on annual input of litter and its quality. The aim of this study was to investigate the quantity and quality of OM, the microbial capacity to degrade it and its recalcitrance to further degradation, by considering some extracellular enzyme activities in a beech (Fagus sylvatica L.) forest in south Italy (Mediterranean area). Our attention was focused on the decomposition continuum of the litter horizon and upper soil layer. Because fungi are the major decomposers of plant material, fungal biomass was also measured and its relationship with enzyme activities was tested. The results showed that: (i) the litter horizon and the upper soil layer differed in chemical characteristics and biological activities; (ii) within the litter horizon, the three layers detected for their different degree of degradation (L, recently fallen, not decomposed and not compressed material; F, partially decomposed and fragmented but macroscopically recognizable material; H, compressed and strongly fragmented) differed more in chemical characteristics than in biological activities; (iii) the enzyme activities and fungal biomass changed during the study period but a clear relationship with succession of seasons was evident only for cellulase, laccase, peroxidase and fungal biomass; and (iv) the upper soil layer included 42% OM and less than 50% of that was susceptible to further decomposition. This percentage was 30% in the OM of L.