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Current climate change scenarios for Central Europe project more extreme weather events during the next 50-100 years with intermittent very hot and dry summers. Due to drought events, some German forests are already experiencing severe die-downs of native tree species. One approach to ensure future silviculture in climatically threatened areas is the introduction of drought-resistant Mediterranean tree species.

Litterfall from primary production represents a key resource for the terrestrial biogeochemical nutrient cycles. The complex interactions that take place between primary production, soil, soil animals and soil microorganisms during the process of organic decomposition have developed over evolutionary time under specific habitat conditions. As a result it is currently not possible to predict whether or how these processes will persist when climatically “foreign” litter sources are introduced into a particular habitat. Therefore, on the basis of laboratory and field studies this project investigates the effects southern European oak species (Quercus ilex, Q. frainetto and Q. pubescens) will have on central European soil-animal communities, whether “domestic” soil animals can and will accept this “foreign” litter as a nutrient resource and how the decomposition of this litter will progress in local soils under changing climate conditions.

In autumn of 2008, a long-term monitoring programme was initiated in study sites of southern Hesse in order to document possible effects of planting and growth of the southern European oak species on existing litter decomposer communities (e.g. Diplopoda, Isopoda, Lumbricidae, Enchytraeidae, Nematoda). First laboratory preference studies have already documented the ability of the most important primary litter “fragmenters” (Diplopoda, Isopoda) to ingest and assimilate the litter of the Mediterranean oak species under current climatic conditions at rates equal to or even above that of domestic tree species (Q. robur, Fagus sylvatica). The decomposition rates and vectors of the litter from the same foreign and domestic tree species were measured in the field by means of litter-bag experiments and were also found to be equivalent among all investigated litter species.

Current studies are investigating how these decomposition processes proceed under changing climatic conditions. Laboratory experiments are studying the intake of the various litter species by different Diplopod and Isopod species and populations – originating from climatically diverse habitats and thus potentially being adapted to different climatic situations   under varying climatic conditions (temperature and moisture). Litterbag experiments in the field are measuring decomposition rates and vectors of the different litter species in areas with different climatic conditions (eastern Saxony and southern Hesse in Germany as well as northern Portugal), representing decreasing soil moistures and increasing average ambient temperatures of 2°C and 4°C, which are within the range of predicted temperature increases in Germany. The results of the different experimental and study approaches will allow the assessment and prediction of the decomposability of the southern European oak litter in local soils, which will subsequently be incorporated into an integrated evaluation of the sustainable establishment of these oak species in domestic forests as a response to climate change in Germany.


Andreas Gerlach, Ph.D. student
Barbara Jäschke, Ph.D. student
Dr. Thomas Moser, Senior Scientist (ECT)
Dr. Rüdiger Schmelz, Senior Scientist (ECT)
Dr. Karin Voigtländer, Senior Scientist (Senckenberg)


Gerlach, A., D.J. Russell, J. Römbke & W. Brüggemann (2012) : Consumption of introduced oak litter by native decomposers (Glomeridae, Diplopoda). - Soil Biology & Biochemistry 44: 26 30.

Gerlach, A., Voigtländer, K. & C.M. Heidger (2009) : Influences of the behaviour of epigeic arthropods (Diplopoda, Chilopoda, Carabidae) on the efficiency of pitfall trapping. - Soil Organisms 81(3): 773–790.
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Römbke, T., Römbke, J. & D. Russell (2011) : Effects of temperature increases on the feeding activity of two species of isopods (Porcellio scaber, Porcellionides pruinosus) in laboratory tests. - Soil Organisms 83(2): 210 220.

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