Nutrient cycling efficiency explains the long-term effect of ecosystem engineers on primary production


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  • 1Soil organisms, such as earthworms, accelerate mineralization of soil organic matter and are thought to be beneficial for plant growth. This has been shown in short-term microcosm experiments. It is thus legitimate to ask whether these increases in plant growth are due to brief pulses of mineralization or whether these increases are long-lasting.
  • 2This question was addressed using a system of differential equations modelling the effects of decomposers on nutrient cycling via trophic (nutrient assimilation) and nontrophic effects (through their ecosystem engineering activities).
  • 3The analytical study of this model showed that these processes increase primary production in the long term when they recycle nutrients efficiently, allowing a small fraction of the recycled nutrients to be leached out of the ecosystem.
  • 4Mineralization by the ecosystem engineering activities of decomposers seems to deprive them of a resource. However, it was shown that a decomposer may increase its own biomass, through its ecosystem engineering activities, provided the created recycling loop is efficient enough.
  • 5Mechanisms through which earthworms may modify the efficiency of nutrient cycling are discussed. The necessity of measuring the effect of earthworms on the nutrient input–output balance of ecosystems under field conditions is emphasized.