Termites promote resistance of decomposition to spatiotemporal variability in rainfall

Michiel P. Veldhuis, Francisco J. Laso, Han Olff, and Matty P. Berg

Publication   Laymen’s summary   Nederlandse samenvatting

The ecological impact of rapid environmental change will depend on the resistance of key ecosystems processes, which may be promoted by species that exert strong control over local environmental conditions. Recent theoretical work suggests that macrodetritivores increase the resistance of African savanna ecosystems to changing climatic conditions, but experimental evidence is lacking. We examined the effect of large fungus-growing termites and other non-fungus-growing macrodetritivores on decomposition rates empirically with strong spatiotemporal variability in rainfall and temperature. Non-fungus-growing larger macrodetritivores (earthworms, woodlice, millipedes) promoted decomposition rates relative to microbes and small soil fauna (+34%) but both groups reduced their activities with decreasing rainfall. However, fungus-growing termites increased decomposition rates strongest (+123%) under the most water-limited conditions, making overall decomposition rates mostly independent from rainfall. We conclude that fungus-growing termites are of special importance in decoupling decomposition rates from spatiotemporal variability in rainfall due to the buffered environment they create within their extended phenotype (mounds), that allows decomposition to continue when abiotic conditions outside are less favorable. This points at a wider class of possibly important ecological processes, where soil-plant-animal interactions decouple ecosystem processes from large-scale climatic gradients. This may strongly alter predictions from current climate change models.


Figure: Two distinct effects of macrodetritivores on decomposition rates across environmental gradients of rainfall or temperature. 1: Macrodetritivores increase decomposition rates most compared to microbial decomposition under most favorable conditions resulting in the largest absolute “macrodetritivore effect” under higher rainfall and temperature conditions compared to microbial decomposition rates. 2: Absolute increase of decomposition by termites is higher under more stressful conditions.