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Keywords:

  • C : N : P stoichiometry;
  • community structure;
  • heterotrophs;
  • homeostasis;
  • microbial decomposers;
  • phosphorus;
  • soluble compounds

Abstract

Stoichiometric homeostasis of heterotrophs is a common, but not always well-examined premise in ecological stoichiometry. We experimentally evaluated the relationship between substrate (plant litter) and consumer (microorganisms) stoichiometry for a tropical terrestrial decomposer system. Variation in microbial C : P and N : P ratios tracked that of the soluble litter fraction, but not that of bulk leaf litter material. Microbial N and P were not isometrically related, suggesting higher rates of P than N sequestration in microbial biomass. Shifts in microbial stoichiometry were related to changes in microbial community structure. Our results indicate that P in dissolved form is a major driver of terrestrial microbial stoichiometry, similar to aquatic environments. The demonstrated relative plasticity in microbial C : P and N : P and the critical role of P have important implications for theoretical modelling and contribute to a process-based understanding of stoichiometric relationships and the flow of elements across trophic levels in decomposer systems.