Tree species traits cause divergence in soil acidification during four decades of postagricultural forest development

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A change in land use from agriculture to forest generally increases soil acidity. However, it remains unclear to what extent plant traits can enhance or mitigate soil acidification caused by atmospheric deposition. Soil acidification is detrimental for the survival of many species. An in-depth understanding of tree species-specific effects on soil acidification is therefore crucial, particularly in view of the predicted global increases in acidifying nitrogen (N) deposition. Here, we report soil acidification rates in a chronosequence of broadleaved deciduous forests planted on former arable land in Belgium. This region receives one of the highest loads of potentially acidifying atmospheric deposition in Europe, which allowed us to study a ‘worst case scenario’. We show that less than four decades of forest development caused significant soil acidification. Atmospheric deposition undoubtedly and unequivocally drives postagricultural forests towards more acidic conditions, but the rate of soil acidification is also determined by the tree species-specific leaf litter quality and litter decomposition rates. We propose that the intrinsic differences in leaf litter quality among tree species create fundamentally different nutrient cycles within the ecosystem, both directly through the chemical composition of the litter and indirectly through its effects on the size and composition of earthworm communities. Poor leaf litter quality contributes to the absence of a burrowing earthworm community, which retards leaf litter decomposition and, consequently, results in forest-floor build-up and soil acidification. Also nutrient uptake and N2 fixation are causing soil acidification, but were found to be less important. Our results highlight the fact that tree species-specific traits significantly influence the magnitude of human pollution-induced soil acidification.

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