Litter decomposition and humus formation in high alpine soils

Julia Seeber (PI), Michael Traugott, Alexander Rief, Michael Steinwandter


The decomposition of dead organic matter is a key ecosystem process, returning the nutritional elements to the nutrient cycle, thus making them available to the organisms. Macro-decomposers such as earthworms, millipedes and insect larvae act at the beginning of the litter decomposition process. They fragment and mix the organic matter into more accessible units for microbial attack and incorporate it into the soil. Although it is assumed that macro-decomposers play an important role for litter decomposition in high alpine soils, where suboptimal conditions for litter decomposition occur, little is known on their actual identity and function.

The present proposal directly addresses this gap of knowledge. Using a stable isotope approach the key macrofauna decomposers in the high alpine region will be identified and their decomposition efforts determined. Besides, the relationship between invertebrate decomposers diversity and litter decomposition will be determined to assess biodiversity-ecosystem functioning in high alpine habitats. Furthermore, a new molecular approach will be employed, allowing to assign the faecal pellets to their invertebrate producers at a species-specific level. Thereby, the main producers of organic matter can be identified in the field.

The combination of stable isotope and molecular methodology will allow to gain new insights into the role of decomposers in high alpine areas and provide an important proof of concept for future studies looking into animal-related decomposition and soil formation processes.


Pictures (from top to bottom): research area KD at 2400m a.s.l., research area KG  (Hoher Burgstall, Stubaier Alps) at 2600 m a.s.l., emergence trap at KD, emergence trap at KG, Cylindroiulus fulviceps, Lumbricus rubellus (pictures Seeber)




Funding: Austrian Science Fund Hertha-Firnberg research grant T 441-B17

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