We investigated the relationships of net ecosystem carbon exchange (NEE), soil temperature, and moisture with soil respiration rate and its components at a grassland ecosystem. Stable carbon isotopes were used to separate soil respiration into autotrophic and heterotrophic components within an eddy covariance footprint during the 2008 and 2009 growing seasons. After correction for self-correlation, rates of soil respiration and its autotrophic and heterotrophic components for both years were found to be strongly influenced by variations in daytime NEE – the amount of C retained in the ecosystem during the daytime, as derived from NEE measurements when photosynthetically active radiation was above 0 μmol m−2 s−1. The time scale for correlation of variations in daytime NEE with fluctuations in respiration was longer for heterotrophic respiration (36–42 days) than for autotrophic respiration (4–6 days). In addition to daytime NEE, autotrophic respiration was also sensitive to soil moisture but not soil temperature. In contrast, heterotrophic respiration from soils was sensitive to changes in soil temperature, soil moisture, and daytime NEE. Our results show that – as for forests – plant activity is an important driver of both components of soil respiration in this tallgrass prairie grassland ecosystem. Heterotrophic respiration had a slower coupling with plant activity than did autotrophic respiration. Our findings suggest that the frequently observed variations in the sensitivity of soil respiration to temperature or moisture may stem from variations in the proportions of autotrophic and heterotrophic components of soil respiration. Rates of photosynthesis at seasonal time scales should also be considered as a driver of both autotrophic and heterotrophic soil respiration for ecosystem flux modeling.
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