Belowground community turnover accelerates the decomposition of standing dead wood

Mark A. Bradford* (Corresponding author), Daniel S. Maynard, Thomas W. Crowther, Paul T. Frankson, Jacqueline E. Mohan, Corinna Steinrueck, G. F. Veen, Joshua R. King, Robert J. Warren

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journal/periodicalArticleScientificpeer-review

14 Citations (Scopus)
11 Downloads (Pure)


Standing dead trees (snags) decompose more slowly than downed dead wood and provide critical habitat for many species. The rate at which snags fall therefore influences forest carbon dynamics and biodiversity. Fall rates correlate strongly with mean annual temperature, presumably because warmer climates facilitate faster wood decomposition and hence degradation of the structural stability of standing wood. These faster decomposition rates coincide with turnover from fungal-dominated wood decomposer communities in cooler forests to codomination by fungi and termites in warmer regions. A key question for projecting forest dynamics is therefore whether temperature effects on wood decomposition arise primarily because warmer conditions facilitate faster decomposer metabolism, or are also influenced indirectly by belowground community turnover (e.g., termites exert additional influence beyond fungal-plus-bacterial mediated decomposition). To test between these possibilities, we simulate standing dead trees with untreated wooden posts and follow them in the field across 5 yr at 12 sites, before measuring buried, soil–air interface and aerial post sections to quantify wood decomposition and organism activities. High termite activities at the warmer sites are associated with rates of postfall that are three times higher than at the cooler sites. Termites primarily consume buried wood, with decomposition rates greatest where termite activities are highest. However, where higher microbial and termite activities co-occur, they appear to compensate for one another first, and then to slow decomposition rates at their highest activities, suggestive of interference competition. If the range of microbial and termite codomination of wood decomposer communities expands under climate warming, our data suggest that expansion will accelerate snag fall with consequent effects on forest carbon cycling and biodiversity in forests previously dominated by microbial decomposers.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere03484
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - 2021


  • basidiomycetes
  • coarse woody debris
  • downed dead wood
  • Reticulitermes flavipes
  • saproxylic insects
  • soil food webs
  • soil invertebrates
  • subterranean termites
  • wood-rot fungi
  • international
  • Plan_S-Compliant_NO


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