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Global climate change and litter decomposition: more frequent fire slows decomposition and increases the functional importance of invertebrates

Authors

  • KARL E. C. BRENNAN,

    1. Department of Forest and Ecosystem Science, University of Melbourne, Water St., Creswick, Vic. 3363, Australia,
    2. Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre, Level 5, 340 Albert St., East Melbourne, Vic. 3002, Australia
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  • FIONA J. CHRISTIE,

    1. Department of Forest and Ecosystem Science, University of Melbourne, Water St., Creswick, Vic. 3363, Australia,
    2. Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre, Level 5, 340 Albert St., East Melbourne, Vic. 3002, Australia
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  • ALAN YORK

    1. Department of Forest and Ecosystem Science, University of Melbourne, Water St., Creswick, Vic. 3363, Australia,
    2. Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre, Level 5, 340 Albert St., East Melbourne, Vic. 3002, Australia
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Karl Brennan, Western Australian Department of Environment and Conservation, PO Box 10173, Kalgoorlie, WA 6430, Australia, e-mail: karl.brennan@dec.wa.gov.au

Abstract

Of the many mechanisms by which global climate change may alter ecosystem processes perhaps the least known and insidious is altered disturbance regimes. We used a field-based experiment to examine the climate change scenario of more frequent fires with altered invertebrate assemblages on the decomposition of Eucalyptus leaves. Our design comprised three fire regimes [long-term fire exclusion (FE), long-term frequent burning (FB) and FE altered to FB (FEFB)] and two litter bag mesh sizes (8.0 and 0.2 mm) that either permitted or denied access to the leaf litter by most invertebrates. We found a significant interaction effect between fire regime and mesh size in losses of litter mass and net carbon (C). Compared with the regime of FE, with more frequent burning (FB and FEFB) the pace of decomposition was slowed by 41% (when access to litter by most invertebrates is not impeded). For the regime of FE, denying access to leaf litter by most invertebrates did not alter the pace of decomposition. Conversely, under regimes of frequently burning, restricting access to the litter by most invertebrates altered the pace of decomposition by 46%. Similar results were found for net C. For net losses of nitrogen (N), no interaction effects between fire regime and mesh size were detected, although both main effects were significant. Our results show that by modifying disturbance regimes such as fire frequency, global climate change has the potential to modify the mechanism by which ecosystems function. With more FB, decomposition is driven not only by fire regime induced changes in substrate quality and/or physiochemical conditions but through the interaction of disturbance regime with animal assemblages mediating ecosystem processes.

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