Baptiste J. Wijas, Habacuc Flores‐Moreno, Steven D. Allison, Luciana Chavez Rodriguez, Alexander W. Cheesman, Lucas A. Cernusak, Rebecca Clement, Will K. Cornwell, Elizabeth S. Duan, Paul Eggleton, Marc V. Rosenfield, Abbey R. Yatsko, Amy E. Zanne

Drivers of wood decay in tropical ecosystems: Termites versus microbes along spatial, temporal and experimental precipitation gradients

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics

Abstract Models estimating decomposition rates of dead wood across space and time are mainly based on studies carried out in temperate zones where microbes are dominant drivers of decomposition. However, most dead wood biomass is found in tropical ecosystems, where termites are also important wood consumers. Given the dependence of microbial decomposition on moisture with termite decomposition thought to be more resilient to dry conditions, the relative importance of these decomposition agents is expected to shift along gradients in precipitation that affect wood moisture. Here, we investigated the relative roles of microbes and termites in wood decomposition across precipitation gradients in space, time and with a simulated drought experiment in tropical Australia. We deployed mesh bags with non‐native pine wood blocks, allowing termite access to half the bags. Bags were collected every 6 months (end of wet and dry seasons) over a 4‐year period across five sites along a rainfall gradient (ranging from savanna to wet sclerophyll to rainforest) and within a simulated drought experiment at the wettest site. We expected microbial decomposition to proceed faster in wet conditions with greater relative influence of termites in dry conditions. Consistent with expectations, microbial‐mediated wood decomposition was slowest in dry savanna sites, dry seasons and simulated drought conditions. Wood blocks discovered by termites decomposed 16–36% faster than blocks undiscovered by termites regardless of precipitation levels. Concurrently, termites were 10 times more likely to discover wood in dry savanna compared with wet rainforest sites, compensating for slow microbial decomposition in savannas. For wood discovered by termites, seasonality and drought did not significantly affect decomposition rates. Taken together, we found that spatial and seasonal variation in precipitation is important in shaping wood decomposition rates as driven by termites and microbes, although these different gradients do not equally impact decomposition agents. As we better understand how climate change will affect precipitation regimes across the tropics, our results can improve predictions of how wood decomposition agents will shift with potential for altering carbon fluxes. Read the free Plain Language Summary for this article on the Journal blog.

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