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Oak trees and soil interactions in Mediterranean forests: a positive feedback model



Questions: What is the spectrum of variability of chemical elements in a Mediterranean forest ecosystem across the different compartments? Do co-existing tree species with different leaf chemical composition and nutrient cycling distinctly modify soil conditions? Could these species-specific, tree-generated soil changes create a potential positive feedback by affecting long-term species distribution?

Location: Mixed oak forests of southern Spain, Los Alcornocales Natural Park.

Methods: We sampled and chemically analysed five different ecosystem components: leaves, leaf fall, litter and superficial (0–25 cm) and sub-superficial (25–50 cm) soil beneath the canopies of evergreen Quercus suber and deciduous Q. canariensis trees. We used multiple co-inertia analysis (MCoA) to conjointly analyse the patterns of variability and covariation of eight macro- and micronutrients determined in each of the sampled ecological materials. We implemented a path analysis to investigate alternative causal models of relationships among the chemical properties of the different ecosystem components.

Results: Variability in the concentration of chemical elements was related to the nature of their biogeochemical cycles. However, the rank of element concentration was consistent across ecosystem components. Analysis of co-inertia (MCoA) revealed that there was a common underlying multivariate pattern of nutrient enrichment in the ecosystem, which supported the hypothesis of a separation in biogeochemical niches between the two co-existing oak species, with Q. canariensis having richer plant tissues and more fertile soil directly under each tree than Q. suber. The feasibility of a potential tree–soil positive feedback model was the only statistically validated among several alternative (non-feedback) models tested.

Conclusions: In the studied Mediterranean forests, oak species distinctly modify soil fertility conditions through different nutrient return pathways. Further investigation is needed to address whether these tree-generated soil changes could affect seedling establishment and ultimately influence species distribution.