Research article – Frontiers in microbiology 2023

Solar radiation explains litter degradation along alpine elevation gradients better than other climatic or edaphic parameters



Organic matter (OM) decomposition has been shown to vary across ecosystems, suggesting that variation in local ecological conditions influences this process. A better understanding of the ecological factors driving OM decomposition rates will allow to better predict the effect of ecosystem changes on the carbon cycle. While temperature and humidity have been put forward as the main drivers of OM decomposition, the concomitant role of other ecosystem properties, such as soil physicochemical properties, and local microbial communities, remains to be investigated within large-scale ecological gradients. To address this gap, we measured the decomposition of a standardized OM source – green tea and rooibos tea – across 24 sites spread within a full factorial design including elevation and exposition, and across two distinct bioclimatic regions in the Swiss Alps. By analyzing OM decomposition via 19 climatic, edaphic or soil microbial activity-related variables, which strongly varied across sites, we identified solar radiation as the primary source of variation of both green and rooibos teabags decomposition rate. This study thus highlights that while most variables, such as temperature or humidity, as well as soil microbial activity, do impact decomposition process, in combination with the measured pedo-climatic niche, solar radiation, very likely by means of indirect effects, best captures variation in OM degradation. For instance, high solar radiation might favor photodegradation, in turn speeding up the decomposition activity of the local microbial communities. Future work should thus disentangle the synergistic effects of the unique local microbial community and solar radiation on OM decomposition across different habitats.