Bioturbation by mammals and fire interact to alter ecosystem-level nutrient dynamics in longleaf pine forests
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Activities of ecosystem engineers can interact with other disturbances to modulate rates of key processes such as productivity and nutrient cycling. Bioturbation, movement of soil by organisms, is a widespread form of ecosystem engineering in terrestrial ecosystems. We propose that bioturbation by southeastern pocket gophers (Geomys pinetis), an abundant but declining ecosystem engineer in longleaf pine (Pinus palustris Mill.) forests, accelerates nutrient dynamics of the forest floor by burying litter and then reduces litter consumption and nitrogen (N) volatilization losses in the presence of fire. We evaluated our hypothesis by measuring how litter burial alters decomposition and N and phosphorus (P) turnover of longleaf pine and turkey oak (Quercus laevis Walt.) litter over four years, and then simulated interactive ecosystem-level effects of litter burial and low-intensity fires on N and P dynamics of the litter layer. In the field, mass loss was over two times greater and N and P were released much more rapidly from litter buried beneath mounds than on the surface of the forest floor. At a measured rate of mound formation covering 2.3 ± 0.6% of the forest floor per year, litter mass and N and P content of the forest floor simulated over an eight-year period were approximately 11% less than amounts in areas without pocket gopher mounds. In contrast to unburied litter, litter beneath mounds is protected from consumption during fires, and as fire interval increased, consumption rates decreased because mounds cover more years of accumulated litter. Our research indicates that bioturbation and burial of litter by pocket gophers accelerates turnover of N and P on the forest floor, and in the presence of fire, conserves N in this ecosystem where productivity is known to be nutrient limited.