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Litter conversion into detritivore faeces reshuffles the quality control over C and N dynamics during decomposition

Joly F.X., Coq S., Coulis M., Nahmani J., Hättenschwiler S.. 2018. Functional Ecology, 32 (11) : p. 2605-2614.

In many terrestrial ecosystems, detritivorous soil organisms ingest large amounts of leaf litter returning most of it to the soil as faeces. Such conversion of leaf litter into faeces may stimulate decomposition by increasing the surface area available for microbial colonisation. Yet, experimental support for either the outcome or the mechanism of these conversion effects is lacking. Based on the hypothesis that the identity of plant species from which leaf litter is transformed into faeces has a critical role in how faeces decomposition proceeds, we collected faeces of the widely abundant millipede Glomeris marginata fed with leaf litter from seven distinct tree species. We compared the physical and chemical characteristics and the rates of carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) loss between litter and faeces. We found that after 100 days of exposure under controlled conditions, C loss was on average higher in faeces (40.0%) than that in litter (26.6%), with a significant increase for six of the seven species. Concurrently, N dynamics switched from a net immobilisation (7.7%) in litter to a net release (14.6%) in faeces, with a significant increase for five of the seven species. Litter conversion into faeces generally homogenised differences in physical and chemical characteristics among species. Despite such homogenisation, variability in rates of faeces C and N loss among species was similar compared to leaf litter, but correlated with a different set of traits. Specifically, faecal pellet C loss was positively related to compaction (decreased specific area and increased density of faecal pellets), and both C and N loss from faecal pellets were positively related to fragmentation (increased specific area and perimeter of particles within faecal pellets). We conclude that litter fragmentation and compaction into detritivore faecal pellets lead to substantially enhanced decomposition, with a particularly strong impact on N dynamics that changed from immobilisation to net release depending on litter species. Moreover, litter quality control on decomposition is reshuffled by litter conversion into faeces. In ecosystems with high detritivore abundance, this so far largely overlooked pathway of organic matter turnover may strongly affect ecosystem C and N cycling.

Thématique : Biologie du sol; Chimie et physique du sol

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