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Urban Natural Resources Stewardship

Biotic and Abiotic Drivers of Decomposition Rates: A Comparison among Five Cities

Research Issue

[photo:] A research technician examines decomposition rates on the forest floor.  Photo by: Ian Yesilonis, US Forest ServiceSoil community structure and function reflect both natural and human disturbance and stress. For example, forestry, agriculture, and urbanization can dramatically alter the species composition of soil biota. However, assessments of human impacts have focused primarily on agricultural areas. Much less is known on the structure and function of soil communities in urban and suburban areas and whether effects of urbanization are similar across regional and global scales.

Urban soils provide many of the same ecosystem processes as “natural” or agricultural soils, e.g., decomposition, nutrient cycling, water purification and regulation, media for plant growth, and habitat for an enormous variety of organisms. A particularly important service provided by soil biota is the decomposition of organic matter. Recent global comparisons of the decay of a reference substrate have yielded important insights into the control of decomposition, particularly with respect to climate change and the importance of soil fauna. Similar comparisons of decomposition rates across urban ecosystems and their native counterparts will provide insights into the control of decay processes with respect to land use change, and how changes in land use may interact with the changing climate. Due to their altered climate, urban settings are often used as “natural experiments” to study the effects of climate change.

Our Research

In this study, we compare soil communities and decay rates across urban soil ecosystems at local, regional, and global scales. The work focuses on developing protocols that are simple to adopt across many habitat types and soil conditions in urban areas across the world. Moreover, experiments are suitable for students (grade 6 to college undergraduates) and citizen scientists.

Expected Outcomes

The ultimate goal of this research is to establish a global experimental network that compares soil community composition and soil processes across different climate zones, urban development patterns, socio-economic factors, soil types, and urban environmental factors. Furthermore, this research will augment the Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative’s effort to measure soil biodiversity in undisturbed and agricultural habitats.

Research Participants

    • K. Szlavecz, Johns Hopkins University
    • R.V. Pouyat, USDA Forest Service, Northern Research Station
    • S. Cilliers, North-West University, South Africa
    • Cs.Csuzdi, Eszterházy K. College, Hungary
    • M. Dombos, Institute for Soil Sciences and Agricultural Chemistry, Hungary
    • E. Hornung, Szent István University, Hungary
    • D.J. Kotze, University of Helsinki, Finland
    • S. Mishra, North-West University, South Africa
    • H. Setälä, University of Helsinki, Finland
    • D.E. Schmidt, University of Maryland
    • S.A. Yarwood, University of Maryland
    • I.D. Yesilonis, USDA Forest Service, Northern Research Station

Last Modified: November 10, 2015