1. European settlement of eastern North America resulted in dramatic changes to ecosystems, although the dynamics and underlying causes of these changes are not always obvious. For example, land clearance likely exposed soils to increased wind erosion, potentially impacting downwind ecosystems indirectly through subsequent enhancement of dust deposition. We hypothesized that otherwise undisturbed wetlands were altered through this indirect disturbance mechanism, increasing nutrient availability and initiating a cascade of ecosystem-level changes.
2. We tested this hypothesis in a floating kettle peatland located in north-western Pennsylvania, USA, using an interdisciplinary approach. A series of peat cores were collected along a transect oriented parallel to the dominant wind direction. Palaeoecological techniques were used to identify signatures of upland deforestation and mineral matter deposition within the peat profiles. Elemental analyses were used to reconstruct historic availability of major macronutrients, plant community dynamics were reconstructed using plant macrofossils and tree rings (Pinus strobus) and testate amoebae were used as a proxy for microbial community dynamics.
3. Strong correlations between the concentration of ragweed (Ambrosia) pollen and fine-grained mineral matter linked upland deforestation to enhanced dust deposition on the peatland surface. Elemental analyses indicated that nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium concentrations increased coincident with dust deposition. Plant communities shifted from Sphagnum dominance to vascular-plant dominance coincident with enhanced dust deposition, including increased recruitment of P. strobus onto the peatland. Testate amoeba communities shifted towards those adapted to highly variable microenvironmental conditions and likely reflect broader changes in microbial communities.
4. Synthesis. Upland deforestation by European settlers triggered a cascade of ecological changes on a nutrient-poor peatland by enhancing dust deposition and nutrient delivery on the surface. These results demonstrate that indirect, unintended and often overlooked human disturbances can lead to dramatic structural and functional alterations of carbon-rich wetland ecosystems, highlighting the potential vulnerability of these systems in human-dominated landscapes.