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PLoS One. 2012;7(9):e45540. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0045540. Epub 2012 Sep 26.

Rate of belowground carbon allocation differs with successional habit of two afromontane trees.

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Institute of Soil Science, Leibniz Universität Hannover, Hannover, Germany.



Anthropogenic disturbance of old-growth tropical forests increases the abundance of early successional tree species at the cost of late successional ones. Quantifying differences in terms of carbon allocation and the proportion of recently fixed carbon in soil CO(2) efflux is crucial for addressing the carbon footprint of creeping degradation.


We compared the carbon allocation pattern of the late successional gymnosperm Podocarpus falcatus (Thunb.) Mirb. and the early successional (gap filling) angiosperm Croton macrostachyus Hochst. es Del. in an Ethiopian Afromontane forest by whole tree (13)CO(2) pulse labeling. Over a one-year period we monitored the temporal resolution of the label in the foliage, the phloem sap, the arbuscular mycorrhiza, and in soil-derived CO(2). Further, we quantified the overall losses of assimilated (13)C with soil CO(2) efflux.


(13)C in leaves of C. macrostachyus declined more rapidly with a larger size of a fast pool (64% vs. 50% of the assimilated carbon), having a shorter mean residence time (14 h vs. 55 h) as in leaves of P. falcatus. Phloem sap velocity was about 4 times higher for C. macrostachyus. Likewise, the label appeared earlier in the arbuscular mycorrhiza of C. macrostachyus and in the soil CO(2) efflux as in case of P. falcatus (24 h vs. 72 h). Within one year soil CO(2) efflux amounted to a loss of 32% of assimilated carbon for the gap filling tree and to 15% for the late successional one.


Our results showed clear differences in carbon allocation patterns between tree species, although we caution that this experiment was unreplicated. A shift in tree species composition of tropical montane forests (e.g., by degradation) accelerates carbon allocation belowground and increases respiratory carbon losses by the autotrophic community. If ongoing disturbance keeps early successional species in dominance, the larger allocation to fast cycling compartments may deplete soil organic carbon in the long run.

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