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Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2012

Linking vegetation change, carbon sequestration and biodiversity: insights from island ecosystems in a long-term natural experiment

Wardle, David; Jonsson, Micael; Bansal, Sheel; Bardgett, Richard D.; Gundale, Michael; Metcalfe, Daniel


1. Despite recent interest in linkages between above- and belowground communities and their consequences for ecosystem processes, much remains unknown about their responses to long-term ecosystem change. We synthesize multiple lines of evidence from a long-term ‘natural experiment’ to illustrate how ecosystem retrogression (the decline in ecosystem processes due to long-term absence of major disturbance) drives vegetation change, and thus aboveground and belowground carbon (C) sequestration, and communities of consumer biota. 2. Our study system involves 30 islands in Swedish boreal forest that form a 5000 year fire-driven retrogressive chronosequence. Here, retrogression leads to lower plant productivity and slower decomposition, and a community shift from plants with traits associated with resource acquisition to those linked with resource conservation. 3. We present consistent evidence that aboveground ecosystem C sequestration declines, while belowground and total C storage increases linearly for at least 5000 years following fire absence. This increase is driven primarily by changes in vegetation characteristics, impairment of decomposer organisms and absence of humus combustion. 4. Data from contrasting trophic groups show that during retrogression, biomass or abundance of plants and decomposer biota decreases, while that of aboveground invertebrates and birds increases, due to different organisms accessing resources via distinct energy channels. Meanwhile, diversity measures of vascular plants and aboveground (but not belowground) consumers respond positively to retrogression. 5. We show that taxonomic richness of plants and aboveground consumers are positively correlated with total ecosystem C storage, suggesting that conserving old growth forests simultaneously maximizes biodiversity and C sequestration. However, we find little observational or experimental evidence that plant diversity is a major driver of ecosystem C storage on the islands relative to other biotic and abiotic factors. 6. Synthesis. Our study reveals that across contrasting islands differing in exposure to a key extrinsic driver (historical disturbance regime and resulting retrogression), there are coordinated responses of soil fertility, vegetation, consumer communities, and ecosystem C sequestration, which all feed back to one another. It also highlights the value of well replicated natural experiments for tackling questions about aboveground-belowground linkages over temporal and spatial scales that are otherwise unachievable.


above-ground; below-ground; biodiversity; carbon sequestration; chronosequence; island ecology; natural experiment; plant-soil (below-ground) interactions; retrogression; succession

Published in

Journal of Ecology
2012, volume: 100, number: 1, pages: 16-30

Authors' information

Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Forest Ecology and Management
Jonsson, Micael
Umeå University
Bansal, Sheel
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Forest Ecology and Management
Bardgett, Richard D.
Lancaster University
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Forest Ecology and Management
Metcalfe, Daniel
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Forest Ecology and Management

Sustainable Development Goals

SDG15 Life on land

UKÄ Subject classification

Environmental Sciences related to Agriculture and Land-use
Forest Science

Publication Identifiers


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