13C and 15N in microarthropods reveal little response of Douglas-fir ecosystems to climate change


Present address: Erik Hobbie, Morse Hall, CSRC-EOS, University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH 03824, USA, fax + 1 603 862 0188, e-mail:


Understanding ecosystem carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) cycling under global change requires experiments maintaining natural interactions among soil structure, soil communities, nutrient availability, and plant growth. In model Douglas-fir ecosystems maintained for five growing seasons, elevated temperature and carbon dioxide (CO2) increased photosynthesis and increased C storage belowground but not aboveground. We hypothesized that interactions between N cycling and C fluxes through two main groups of microbes, mycorrhizal fungi (symbiotic with plants) and saprotrophic fungi (free-living), mediated ecosystem C storage. To quantify proportions of mycorrhizal and saprotrophic fungi, we measured stable isotopes in fungivorous microarthropods that efficiently censused the fungal community. Fungivorous microarthropods consumed on average 35% mycorrhizal fungi and 65% saprotrophic fungi. Elevated temperature decreased C flux through mycorrhizal fungi by 7%, whereas elevated CO2 increased it by 4%. The dietary proportion of mycorrhizal fungi correlated across treatments with total plant biomass (n= 4, r2= 0.96, P= 0.021), but not with root biomass. This suggests that belowground allocation increased with increasing plant biomass, but that mycorrhizal fungi were stronger sinks for recent photosynthate than roots. Low N content of needles (0.8–1.1%) and A horizon soil (0.11%) coupled with high C : N ratios of A horizon soil (25–26) and litter (36–48) indicated severe N limitation. Elevated temperature treatments increased the saprotrophic decomposition of litter and lowered litter C : N ratios. Because of low N availability of this litter, its decomposition presumably increased N immobilization belowground, thereby restricting soil N availability for both mycorrhizal fungi and plant growth. Although increased photosynthesis with elevated CO2 increased allocation of C to ectomycorrhizal fungi, it did not benefit plant N status. Most N for plants and soil storage was derived from litter decomposition. N sequestration by mycorrhizal fungi and limited N release during litter decomposition by saprotrophic fungi restricted N supply to plants, thereby constraining plant growth response to the different treatments.