Below ground functioning of tropical biomes
Butler, André Joseph
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Within the field of ecosystem science, substantial progress has been made towards our knowledge of the factors which shape the global distribution of vegetation. However, factors which control the biogeography of belowground vegetation structure and function remain less understood than their aboveground counterpart. Vegetation types can differ substantially in terms of belowground processes such as root growth, root turnover, and resulting vertical root distributions. Fine roots provide an exchange surface, allowing transport of water and nutrients to the leaves. On the other hand they also represent a significant sink for photosynthetically fixed carbon to the soil in terms of maintenance and growth. Overall, root processes have a major influence on fluxes of water, carbon and nutrients within ecosystems. In this thesis, an electrical impedance method was used to determine the area of ‘active’ root in contact with the soil for the purpose of absorption. These measurements were compared to the leaf area of the trees, for the first time allowing the aboveground and the belowground resource exchange areas of plant to be contrasted. This approach was first developed to compare the exchange surface areas of leaves and roots within a Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) managed forest, making measurements in adjacent stands of differing tree density, but identical in age. Stem density was found to significantly influence the proportion of absorbing root area relative to leaves. Following the successful test of the method, it was used to compare the resource exchange areas of eight stands of forest and savanna vegetation in central Brazil. Across a broad gradient of vegetation structure, the results showed progressively more investment in fine root area relative to leaf area across the transition from dense forest to open savanna. However, a contrasting result showed that the forests had a higher absorbing root area to leaf area ratio than savannas. Furthermore, these measured ratios were strongly correlated with tree height across the eight structurally contrasting stands. It appears that absorbing root area index provides a physiologically meaningful way of characterising belowground water uptake ability, it is possible that excessive investment in fine root area, relative to leaf area, may reflect differences in the requirement for nutrient uptake in poor soils. Complementary to the analysis of root absorbing area, measurements of root activity and belowground carbon cycling were made by focussing on two of the eight tropical study sites. Here, the carbon costs of root growth and respiration were quantified to develop a belowground carbon budget for two structurally contrasting Brazilian savannas, using soil respiration measurements and a root presence/absence manipulation experiment. Annual estimates showed that at least 60% of the total CO2 efflux from the soil was contributed by autotrophic processes, with this value rising to 80% during the dry season. Seasonal fluctuations of soil respiration were strongly correlated with soil moisture for both the autotrophic (R2=0.79, pvalue< 0.05) and heterotrophic (R2=0.90, p-value<0.05) components, with maximum flux rates corresponding with 16.4 and 17.7% soil moisture content respectively. Furthermore, autotrophic respiration was found to varied with phonological patterns of fine root growth (R2=0.80, p-value<0.05). It follows that, the way in which phenological processes respond to a changing climate is of potential importance within seasonally dry regions. Diurnal fluctuations of heterotrophic CO2 efflux were correlated with soil temperature (R2=0.74, p-value<0.05), demonstrating a Q10 value of 1.6 across both sites. In contrast, total soil CO2 efflux was not correlated with temperature (p-value=0.31), suggesting that autotrophic respiration is predominantly limited by substrate supply.
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