Thesis Progress at CES on 13 September 2023 at 3:00 pm titled "Ecology of the terrestrial carbon cycle: Influence of climate and animals" by Dilip Naidu from IISc, Bangalore
The terrestrial carbon (C) cycle involves fluxes between multiple pools that determine ecosystem functions and regulate global climate. These fluxes and pools are influenced by changes in abiotic (temperature, precipitation etc.) and biotic (animals, microbes, etc.) factors. In this thesis, I address three questions on how these abiotic and biotic drivers influence the size and stability of these fluxes and pools.
In the first chapter, I investigate how covariation between decadal trends (2001-2019) in temperature and precipitation influence the two opposing C-fluxes in the soil-C pool – (1) C-influx through primary production (NPP), and (2) C-efflux through soil heterotrophic respiration (Rh). I estimate how any imbalance between these opposing fluxes affects the vulnerability of soil-C across the globe. I find that changes in C-influx may not compensate for rising C-efflux, under wetter and warmer conditions. Soil-C loss can occur in both tropics and at high latitudes, and precipitation emerged as the key determinant of soil-C vulnerability in a warmer world. This implies that hotspots for soil-C loss/gain can shift in the coming decades to make the soil-C pool vulnerable to climate change despite widespread increase in NPP across the world.
In the second chapter, I explored the influence of climate on long-term correlations in vegetation fluctuations (i.e., persistence, measured by the Hurst exponent from time-series data). I found evidence for stronger persistence in warm and dry regions of the world, and there were non-linear relationships between persistence and two key climate variables (i.e., temperature and precipitation). While average temperature and precipitation together explained nearly three-fourths of the spatial variation in vegetation persistence, they had limited ability to explain the observed temporal changes in persistence. We find evidence for change in vegetation persistence across the globe driven by background change in climate. This provides some new insights into the resistance/resilience of vegetation in different ecosystems.
In the third chapter, I investigated how animals – large mammalian herbivores – influence the terrestrial carbon cycle. Their influence on the size of the soil-C pool is well known, but how herbivores control the temporal stability of soil-C has remained largely unknown. I used a long-term field experiment in the Trans-Himalaya (2005-present) to estimate the consequences of herbivore-exclusion on interannual fluctuations in soil-C. I found high interannual variability in soil-C, and herbivores promote temporal stability of soil-C. Grazing by herbivores also mediated the influence of nitrogen on the stability on soil-C. Therefore, conserving large mammalian herbivores in grazing ecosystems can help achieve nature-based climate solutions.
Overall, this thesis explores the linkages between three aspects of the terrestrial carbon cycle and climate, and herbivores. It highlights the non-linearities in vegetation-soil-animal interactions which are important for the stability of the terrestrial carbon cycle.