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article imageTermites and fungi are ‘more important’ than climate change

By Tim Sandle     Jun 9, 2014 in Science
Tallahassee - A new research report argues that the activities of termites and fungi are more important than climate change in relation to the breakdown and decomposition of matter.
A widely held scientific view is that temperature is the dominant factor in determining the rate of wood decomposition worldwide. Therefore, if temperatures are rising through climate change, then this could lead to higher pollution (especially atmospheric carbon). This is because decomposition is affected by the speed at which woody materials are broken down, and this in turn slows as temperature increases.
However, new research suggests that fungi and termites, which help break down wood, may play a more significant role in the rate of decomposition than temperature alone.
The scientists arrived at this conclusion after running a 13-month experiment. They distributed 160 blocks of pine tree wood across five sub-regions of temperate forest in the eastern U.S. — from Connecticut to northern Florida — and then monitored the decay that occurred.
The research group studied similar forest types: hardwood deciduous forests, to focus on major differences in climate across the regional gradient. For instance, the average annual temperature in southern New England is about 11 degrees Celsius cooler than Florida. Within each of the five sub-regions they placed the wood blocks in different types of terrain to evaluate the effects of local versus regional factors as controls on decomposition.
After 13 months, the researchers measured how much wood had been lost, whether to the consumption of fungi growing on the wood or to termites consuming the wood. The study revealed that local-scale factors explained about three quarters of the variation in wood decomposition (like levels of fungal and numbers of termites); while climate and temperature explained only about one quarter. This ran contrary to the expectation that climate should be the predominant factor.
Whilst the results are interesting, more data will be required to test out the new findings. The research was conducted by scientists based at Yale, the University of Central Florida and SUNY Buffalo State. The findings have been published in the journal Nature Climate Change. The research is titled “Climate fails to predict wood decomposition at regional scales.”
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