Soil biology research across latitude, elevation and disturbance gradients: A review of forest studies from Puerto Rico during the past 25 years
Progress in understanding changes in soil biology in response to latitude, elevation and disturbance gradients has generally lagged behind studies of above-ground plants and animals owing to methodological constraints and high diversity and complexity of interactions in below-ground food webs. New methods have opened research opportunities in below-ground systems, leading to a rapid increase in studies of below-ground organisms and processes. Here, we summarize results of forest soil biology research over the past 25 years in Puerto Rico as part of a 75th Anniversary Symposium on research of the USDA Forest Service International Institute of Tropical Forestry. These results are presented in the context of changes in soil and forest floor biota across latitudinal, elevation and disturbance gradients. Invertebrate detritivores in these tropical forests exerted a stronger influence on leaf decomposition than in cold temperate forests using a common substrate. Small changes in arthropods brought about using different litterbag mesh sizes induced larger changes in leaf litter mass loss and nutrient mineralization. Fungi and bacteria in litter and soil of wet forests were surprisingly sensitive to drying, leading to changes in nutrient cycling. Tropical fungi also showed sensitivity to environmental fluctuations and gradients as fungal phylotype composition in soil had a high turnover along an elevation gradient in Puerto Rico. Globally, tropical soil fungi had smaller geographic ranges than temperate fungi. Invertebrate activity accelerates decomposition of woody debris, especially in lowland dry forest, but invertebrates are also important in early stages of log decomposition in middle elevation wet forests. Large deposits of scoltine bark beetle frass from freshly fallen logs coincide with nutrient immobilization by soil microbial biomass and a relatively low density of tree roots in soil under newly fallen logs. Tree roots shifted their foraging locations seasonally in relation to decaying logs. Native earthworms were sensitive to disturbance and were absent from tree plantations, whereas introduced earthworms were found across elevation and disturbance gradients.