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Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2020

Tropical Rainforest Restoration Plantations Are Slow to Restore the Soil Biological and Organic Carbon Characteristics of Old Growth Rainforest

Bonner, Mark T. L.; Allen, Diane E.; Brackin, Richard; Smith, Tim E.; Lewis, Tom; Shoo, Luke P.; Schmidt, Susanne


Widespread and continuing losses of tropical old-growth forests imperil global biodiversity and alter global carbon (C) cycling. Soil organic carbon (SOC) typically declines with land use change from old-growth forest, but the underlying mechanisms are poorly understood. Ecological restoration plantations offer an established means of restoring aboveground biomass, structure and diversity of forests, but their capacity to recover the soil microbial community and SOC is unknown due to limited empirical data and consensus on the mechanisms of SOC formation. Here, we examine soil microbial community response and SOC in tropical rainforest restoration plantings, comparing them with the original old-growth forest and the previous land use (pasture). Two decades post-reforestation, we found a statistically significant but small increase in SOC in the fast-turnover particulate C fraction. Although the delta C-13 signature of the more stable humic organic C (HOC) fraction indicated a significant compositional turnover in reforested soils, from C-4 pasture-derived C to C-3 forest-derived C, this did not translate to HOC gains compared with the pasture baseline. Matched old-growth rainforest soils had significantly higher concentrations of HOC than pasture and reforested soils, and soil microbial enzyme efficiency and the ratio of gram-positive to gram-negative bacteria followed the same pattern. Restoration plantings had unique soil microbial composition and function, distinct from baseline pasture but not converging on target old growth rainforest within the examined timeframe. Our results suggest that tropical reforestation efforts could benefit from management interventions beyond re-establishing tree cover to realize the ambition of early recovery of soil microbial communities and stable SOC.


Mixed-species plantations; Soil fungi and bacteria; Soil carbon sequestration; Microbial function and composition; Microbial ecology; Land use change

Published in

Microbial Ecology
2020, Volume: 79, number: 2, pages: 432-442
Publisher: SPRINGER

    UKÄ Subject classification

    Soil Science
    Forest Science

    Publication identifier


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