Monday, June 9, 2014

Termites, fungi play more important role in decomposition than temperature

Science Daily: Climate change models could have a thing or two to learn from termites and fungi, according to a new study released this week. For a long time scientists have believed that temperature is the dominant factor in determining the rate of wood decomposition worldwide. Decomposition matters because the speed at which woody material are broken down strongly influences the retention of carbon in forest ecosystems and can help to offset the loss of carbon to the atmosphere from other sources. That makes the decomposition rate a key factor in detecting potential changes to the climate.

But scientists from Yale, the University of Central Florida and SUNY Buffalo State found that fungi and termites, which help break down wood, may play a more significant role in the rate of decomposition than temperature alone. The group's findings appear in this week's edition of the journal Nature Climate Change.

"The big surprise of this work was the realization that the impact of organisms surpassed climate as a control of decomposition across spatial scales," said Joshua King, a biologist at UCF and co-author of the paper. "Understanding the ecology and biology of fungi and termites is a key to understanding how the rate of decomposition will vary from place to place."

So how did scientists originally come up with temperature as the main factor in decomposition? It has to do with data and math. Scientists most often construct a model based on the average decomposition rates of sites that are in close proximity to each other. In this case, it appears that each local number matter because they reflect the activity of fungi and termites. The team suggests that scientists need to embrace the variability found across data collected from many different sites instead of averaging it all together to create better models with more accurate predictions.

The team reached this conclusion after running a 13-month experiment. They distributed 160 blocks of pine tree wood across five sub-regions of temperate forest in the eastern U.S. -- from Connecticut to northern Florida -- and then monitored the decay that occurred....

Logs eaten by termites, shot by Lady alys, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

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