ECOLOGY: Wildlife in a Charcoal Medium

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Science  09 Jun 2000:
Vol. 288, Issue 5472, pp. 1705c-1705
DOI: 10.1126/science.288.5472.1705c

Wildfires are a common feature of many of the world's vegetation types, and deliberate setting of fires by humans frequently causes huge losses of biomass and local diversity. The above-ground effects of fire on macroscopic organisms are well known. In vegetation with a natural fire cycle, for example in many parts of Australia, plants show a range of adaptations to fire, and some actually require fire for germination.

The effects of fire on the below-ground community of organisms are less well understood. Pietikäinen et al. have studied the effects of charcoal layers on the soil microbial community. They reasoned that the absorptive capacity of charcoal should allow the retention of organic compounds and the subsequent hosting of microorganisms. In experimental microcosms, they examined the capacity of the charcoal layer to adsorb nutrients from leaf litter extract deposited on it and used non-adsorptive pumice and activated carbon as reference materials. They also compared the microbial communities that formed in the charcoal layer with those in a humus layer below.

The charcoal layers adsorbed substantial amounts of organic carbon from the litter extract (more than pumice and less than activated carbon). The microbial communities that formed in the charcoal layers that had higher growth rates and distinct densities and metabolisms compared to those in the underlying humus. These charcoal communities might be an important component in the ability of ecosystems to recover from fire.—AMS

Oikos 18, 231 (2000).

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