Litter type affects the activity of aerobic decomposers in a boreal peatland more than site nutrient and water table regimes
Abstract. Peatlands are carbon (C) storage ecosystems sustained by a high water table (WT). High WT creates anoxic conditions that suppress the activity of aerobic decomposers and provide conditions for peat accumulation. Peatland function can be dramatically affected by WT drawdown caused by climate and/or land-use change. Aerobic decomposers are directly affected by WT drawdown through environmental factors such as increased oxygenation and nutrient availability. Additionally, they are indirectly affected via changes in plant community composition and litter quality. We studied the relative importance of direct and indirect effects of WT drawdown on aerobic decomposer activity in plant litter at two stages of decomposition (incubated in the field for 1 or 2 years). We did this by profiling 11 extracellular enzymes involved in the mineralization of organic C, nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and sulphur. Our study sites represented a three-stage chronosequence from pristine to short-term (years) and long-term (decades) WT drawdown conditions under two nutrient regimes (bog and fen). The litter types included reflected the prevalent vegetation: Sphagnum mosses, graminoids, shrubs and trees.
Litter type was the main factor shaping microbial activity patterns and explained about 30 % of the variation in enzyme activities and activity allocation. Overall, enzyme activities were higher in vascular plant litters compared to Sphagnum litters, and the allocation of enzyme activities towards C or nutrient acquisition was related to the initial litter quality (chemical composition). Direct effects of WT regime, site nutrient regime and litter decomposition stage (length of incubation period) summed to only about 40 % of the litter type effect. WT regime alone explained about 5 % of the variation in enzyme activities and activity allocation. Generally, enzyme activity increased following the long-term WT drawdown and the activity allocation turned from P and N acquisition towards C acquisition. This caused an increase in the rate of litter decomposition. The effects of the short-term WT drawdown were minor compared to those of the long-term WT drawdown: e.g., the increase in the activity of C-acquiring enzymes was up to 120 % (bog) or 320 % (fen) higher after the long-term WT drawdown compared to the short-term WT drawdown. In general, the patterns of microbial activity as well as their responses to WT drawdown depended on peatland type: e.g., the shift in activity allocation to C-acquisition was up to 100 % stronger at the fen compared to the bog.
Our results imply that changes in plant community composition in response to persistent WT drawdown will strongly affect the C dynamics of peatlands. The predictions of decomposer activity under changing climate and/or land-use thus cannot be based on the direct effects of the changed environment only, but need to consider the indirect effects of environmental changes: the changes in plant community composition, their dependence on peatland type, and their time scale.