Plant functional types and temperature control carbon input via roots in peatland soils

Lilli Zeh*, Juul Limpens, Björn Erhagen, Luca Bragazza, Karsten Kalbitz

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)


Aims: Northern peatlands store large amounts of soil organic carbon (C) that can be very sensitive to ongoing global warming. Recently it has been shown that temperature-enhanced growth of vascular plants in these typically moss-dominated ecosystems may promote microbial peat decomposition by increased C input via root exudates. To what extent different plant functional types (PFT) and soil temperature interact in controlling root C input is still unclear. In this study we explored how root C input is related to the presence of ericoid shrubs (shrubs) and graminoid sedges (sedges) by means of a factorial plant clipping experiment (= PFT effect) in two peatlands located at different altitude (= temperature effect). Methods: By selective clipping of shrub and sedge shoots in mixed vegetation at two Alpine peatland sites we interrupted the above- to belowground translocation of C, thus temporarily inhibiting root C release. Subsequent measurements of soil respiration, dissolved organic carbon (DOC) concentration and stable isotope composition ( 13 C) of DOC in pore water were used as proxies to estimate the above- to belowground transfer of C by different PFT. Results: We found that soil respiration rates and DOC concentrations temporarily decreased within 24 h after clipping, with the decrease in soil respiration being most pronounced at the 1.4 °C warmer peatland after clipping shrubs. The transient drop in DOC concentration coincided with a shift towards a heavier C isotope signature, indicating that the decrease was associated with inhibition of a light C source that we attribute to root exudates. Together these results imply that shrubs translocated more C into the peat than sedges, particularly at higher temperature. Conclusions: We showed that plant functional type and temperature interact in controlling root C input under field conditions in peatlands. Our results provide a mechanistic evidence that shrubs may potentially promote the release of stored soil C through root-derived C input.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)19-38
JournalPlant and Soil
Issue number1-2
Early online date4 Mar 2019
Publication statusPublished - May 2019


  • Dissolved organic carbon
  • Peatland
  • Root carbon input
  • Sedges
  • Shrubs
  • Soil respiration
  • Vascular plants
  • δ C

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