OOS 5-1 - Trait-mediated links between plants, soil microbial communities, and ecosystem function under long-term climate change in a UK grassland

Monday, August 7, 2017: 1:30 PM
Portland Blrm 258, Oregon Convention Center
Emma J. Sayer1, Jason D. Fridley2, Raj Whitlock3, Robert T.E. Mills1, Anna E. Oliver4, James D.J. Edgerley1, Andrew P. Askew2 and J. Philip Grime5, (1)Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University, Lancaster, United Kingdom, (2)Biology, Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY, (3)Institute of Integrative Biology, University of Liverpool, Liverpool, United Kingdom, (4)Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Wallingford, United Kingdom, (5)Animal & Plant Sciences, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, United Kingdom
Background/Question/Methods Plants and soil microbes are key determinants of ecosystem carbon and nutrient cycling. Climate change impacts on ecosystem processes are ultimately mediated through plant and microbial traits, which can alter the quality and quantity of organic material available to decomposers, and the capacity of the decomposers to utilize this substrate. Any changes in the distribution of traits within plant- and/or microbial communities could therefore influence ecosystem process rates. Shifts in population- and community-level trait distributions are already occurring with climate change, yet we know little about consequent impacts on ecosystem processes. We studied plant- and microbial communities, plant traits, and nutrient dynamics at the Buxton Climate Change Impacts Laboratory (BCCIL) in response to two decades of summer drought and winter warming treatments in ancient species-rich grassland in the UK.

Results/Conclusions At the community level, the composition of the vegetation at BCCIL is surprisingly resistant to climate treatments, but we observed substantial small-scale turnover in plant species composition within microsites. In particular, the abundance of plant species with high leaf construction costs has increased in drought treatments, which is likely to influence the quality of substrate available to soil microbes. Thus, observed shifts in soil microbial community structure were associated with changes in plant species composition. We measured substantial changes in the abundances of subordinate microbial taxa in drought treatments, which were linked to plant traits representing the quality of available resources. Modified nutrient dynamics in the drought plots can also be associated to changes in plant and soil microbial communities. We suggest that increased supply rates of nitrogen post-drought either indicate higher rates of microbial mineralisation, or reduced plant uptake as a result of lower biomass growth. Although phosphorus supply rates were unaffected by climate treatments, both summer drought and winter warming strengthened the relationship between nitrogen and phosphorus acquiring enzymes, which suggests greater investment of nitrogen in phosphorus acquisition by plants and/or soil microbes. At the population level, observed evolutionary responses mimic functional shifts expected at the species level, including lower specific leaf area under drought in the most abundant plant species. Genomic data also reveal that soil microbes may represent an additional indirect source of selection on plant populations under climate change.

Collectively, 23 years of research at BCCIL provides strong evidence that shifts in trait distributions play a pivotal role in determining the structure and function of a grassland subjected to chronic climate change.