Litter decomposition of three halophytes in a Mediterranean salt marsh: Relevance of litter quality, microbial activity and microhabitat

Studies of litter decomposition in salt marshes have been mainly focused on the measurement of decomposition rates, being litter quality, the type of microbial decomposers and their extracellular enzyme activity, rarely considered. Moreover, most of these studies have been conducted in Poaceae and Cyperaceae species, being scarce the literature on Chenopodiaceae species, which are abundant in Mediterranean salt marshes. Here we analyse the litter decomposition process of two Chenopodiaceae (Sarcocornia fruticosa and Halimione portulacoides) and one Poaceae (Elytrigia atherica) species, belonging S. fruticosa to a halophilous scrub habitat and the other two to a salt meadow habitat of a Mediterranean salt marsh. For each species, we analysed litter decomposition rates, litter quality, fungal and bacterial biomass and potential extracellular enzymes activities. In order to embrace the spatial heterogeneity, two zones were considered within each habitat. Litter of E. atherica decomposed 7- and 13-fold slower than those of S. fruticosa and H. portulacoides, respectively, suggesting that this species is the one that would favour most the carbon sequestration into the soil. The different decomposition rates would be explained by the higher initial lignin and cellulose content of E. atherica rather than by the initial carbon and nitrogen content and C/N ratio. Moreover, enzyme efficiency, compared to enzyme activity, better contributes to explain the different decomposition rates observed. Bacteria dominated throughout the litter decomposition process regardless the species, but fungi increased their relevance in the later stages, when the relative lignin litter content increased. Litter decomposition was affected by microhabitat spatial differences, although the responses depended on the species. Hence, flooding (in the habitat of S. fruticosa) or soil texture (in the habitat of E. atherica and H. portulacoides) might have modulated the decomposition process, being H. portulacoides the most sensitive species to the spatial differences of the salt meadow habitat ​
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