The relative importance of litter quality and site heterogeneity on population dynamics of decomposer food webs was investigated in a semi-natural mixed deciduous forest in Denmark. Litterbags containing beech or ash leaves were placed in four plots. Plots were located within gaps and under closed canopies at two topographically different sites, above and below a slope, respectively, to cover variable environmental conditions. Litter was collected after 2, 4 and 9 months of decomposition. Extensive decay prevented analysis of ash after 9 months. Density of bacteria (CFU), active fungal mycelium (FDA), protozoa (MPN) and nematodes were 4-15-fold higher in ash leaves than in beech leaves in accordance with the higher resource quality of ash. Similar effects of site on density of decomposers were evident in both litter types: with some exceptions, decomposers were higher at the low site and stimulated in gaps. Taxonomic diversity of nematodes increased during decomposition and functional diversity of nematodes followed a pattern often encountered, i.e. opportunistic bacterial-feeders were gradually replaced by fungal-feeders and slower growing bacterial-feeders while predators and omnivors peaked at the end of the study period. At the first sampling, where bacterial activity prevailed, the relative abundance of the two dominant bacterial-feeders, Rhabditidae (fast growing) and Plectus spp. (slower growing), depended more on site than litter type. At the second sampling where fungal activity became more important, the proportions of bacterial and fungal-feeding nematodes also depended more on site than on litter type. At the third sampling individual nematode taxa responded differently to site. In summary, we conclude that although litter quality had a major influence on the density of organisms in the decomposer food web, site effects were also detected and nematode functional groups responded more to site than to litter quality early on in the decomposition process.
Soil Biology and Biochemistry, 2005, Vol 37, Issue 2, p. 203-213