- Soil-plant dynamics of water, nitrogen and sulfur: A study on indigenous and exotic tree species in Munessa Forest, Ethiopia (2005)
- Forest plantations are necessary to counteract the destruction of tropical montane forests. Sustainable forestry requires comprehensive knowledge of tree effects on site conditions and nutrient cycling, but substantial information is lacking even for widely-planted species. In my work, I aimed at identifying such plant effects on ecosystem dynamics, focussing on water, nitrogen (N) and sulfur (S), which included the development of a stable-isotope methodology for S. Based on a characterization of the soils of the study area at the Main Ethiopian Rift Valley escarpment, experimental plots were set up in neighbouring stands of a natural forest dominated by Podocarpus falcatus and in plantations of Cupressus lusitanica and Eucalyptus globulus. All investigations on the ecology of these trees were conducted on the same single-tree centred plots in a combination of time series of natural parameters with isotope tracer experiments, employing inorganic 15N tracers and litter labelled with 34S. Soils of the region reflected the influence of climate and relief, while the homogeneous bedrock caused no influence throughout the region. Methodological work to improve d34S analysis was a precondition for the ecological study on S dynamics. Technical adjustments to the analytical system including a liquid-nitrogen trap reduced the amount of S required for reliable d34S determination by a factor of six compared to the conventional procedure. Soil-plant water dynamics were strongly related to the root system. P. falcatus with high fine root biomass to below 1 m depth appeared active in redistributing soil water. Its physiological response to changing soil moisture with a marked reduction in transpiration (by a factor of six) at dry conditions had a further balancing effect. P. falcatus and C. lusitanica expanded their root systems substantially in the dry season, shifting to deeper layers. Seasonality was very weakly expressed for root biomass and depth of water uptake under E. globulus. It mainly relied on deep water resources tapped by its low-biomass root system, supporting physiological activity in the dry season, when transpiration was increased by a factor of five. Soil labelling with 15N showed similar patterns of root activity. It also revealed the dominance of C. lusitanica near the surface, with its roots effectively intercepting nutrients. However, this had negative impacts on deeper soil layers by reducing biological transformations and increasing leaching losses. In the natural forest, phosphate-extractable soil N and low natural-abundance d15N indicated an intense, conservative N cycling in the upper 60 cm, which was also evenly exploited by the roots of P. falcatus. Nitrogen uptake by E. globulus was concentrated in the deeper layers. A preferential stabilization of N was observed in the topsoil, while losses were indicated by high natural-abundance d15N values, which probably reflected recent processes. As for the trees, species-specific N uptake strategies were observed for the understorey. Litter for the S mineralization experiment was successfully labelled with 34S, opening a way to elucidate soil processes as well as plant uptake and recirculation. Different regimes of decomposition resulted in increasing extractability of S in the topsoil with depth under P. falcatus and C. lusitanica, whereas a decrease was noticed in the E. globulus stand. Seasonality of both bulk and extractable S were minimal. Isotope labelling showed rapid incorporation of litter into the topsoil of E. globulus, while S from litter of C. lusitanica was susceptible to leaching. Plant uptake by P. falcatus and E. globulus led to a steady increase of d34S values. In contrast, isotope enrichment in C. lusitanica leaves peaked after the first rainy season, thereby indicating recirculation of S. The different approaches of my work complemented one another, revealing a consistent pattern of plant traits. P. falcatus had a balancing influence on the ecosystem and appeared to promote soil life. C. lusitanica confined biological transformations to the topsoil and raised the risk of leaching losses. E. globulus was largely independent of superficial resources, giving space to understory growth. This strategy may lead to depletion of groundwater and structural deterioration of the soil.