High-frequency fire alters C : N : P stoichiometry in forest litter

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Abstract

Fire is a major driver of ecosystem change and can disproportionately affect the cycling of different nutrients. Thus, a stoichiometric approach to investigate the relationships between nutrient availability and microbial resource use during decomposition is likely to provide insight into the effects of fire on ecosystem functioning. We conducted a field litter bag experiment to investigate the long-term impact of repeated fire on the stoichiometry of leaf litter C, N and P pools, and nutrient-acquiring enzyme activities during decomposition in a wet sclerophyll eucalypt forest in Queensland, Australia. Fire frequency treatments have been maintained since 1972, including burning every 2 years (2yrB), burning every 4 years (4yrB) and no burning (NB). C : N ratios in freshly fallen litter were 29–42% higher and C : P ratios were 6–25% lower for 2yrB than NB during decomposition, with correspondingly lower 2yrB N : P ratios (27–32) than for NB (34–49). Trends in litter soluble and microbial N : P ratios were similar to the overall litter N : P ratios across fire treatments. Consistent with these, the ratio of activities for N-acquiring to P-acquiring enzymes in litter was higher for 2yrB than NB, whereas 4yrB was generally intermediate between 2yrB and NB. Decomposition rates of freshly fallen litter were significantly lower for 2yrB (72 ± 2% mass remaining at the end of experiment) than for 4yrB (59 ± 3%) and NB (62 ± 3%), a difference that may be related to effects of N limitation, lower moisture content, and/or litter C quality. Results for older mixed-age litter were similar to those for freshly fallen litter although treatment differences were less pronounced. Overall, these findings show that frequent fire (2yrB) decoupled N and P cycling, as manifested in litter C : N : P stoichiometry and in microbial biomass N : P ratio and enzymatic activities. Furthermore, these data indicate that fire induced a transient shift to N-limited ecosystem conditions during the postfire recovery phase.

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