Wood traits explain microbial but not termite-driven decay in Australian tropical rainforest and savanna

Stephanie Law, Habacuc Flores-Moreno, Alexander W. Cheesman, Rebecca Clement, Marc Rosenfield, Abbey Yatsko, Lucas A. Cernusak, James W. Dalling, Thomas Canam, Isra Abo Iqsaysa, Elizabeth S. Duan, Steven D. Allison, Paul Eggleton, Amy E. Zanne

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Variation in decay rates across woody species is a key uncertainty in predicting the fate of carbon stored in deadwood, especially in the tropics. Quantifying the relative contributions of biotic decay agents, particularly microbes and termites, under different climates and across species with diverse wood traits could help explain this variation. To fill this knowledge gap, we deployed woody stems from 16 plant species native to either rainforest (n = 10) or savanna (n = 6) in northeast Australia, with and without termite access. For comparison, we also deployed standardized, non-native pine blocks at both sites. We hypothesized that termites would increase rates of deadwood decay under conditions that limit microbial activity. Specifically, termite contributions to wood decay should be greater under dry conditions and in wood species with traits that constrain microbial decomposers. Termite discovery of stems was surprisingly low with only 17.6% and 22.6% of accessible native stems discovered in the rainforest and savanna respectively. Contrary to our hypothesis, stems discovered by termites decomposed faster only in the rainforest. Termites discovered and decayed pine blocks at higher rates than native stems in both the rainforest and savanna. We found significant variation in termite discovery and microbial decay rates across native wood species within the same site. Although wood traits explained 85% of the variation in microbial decay, they did not explain termite-driven decay. For stems undiscovered by termites, decay rates were greater in species with higher wood nutrient concentrations and syringyl:guiacyl lignin ratios but lower carbon concentrations and wood densities. Synthesis. Ecosystem-scale predictions of deadwood turnover and carbon storage should account for the impact of wood traits on decomposer communities. In tropical Australia, termite-driven decay was lower than expected for native wood on the ground. Even if termites are present, they may not always increase decomposition rates of fallen native wood in tropical forests. Our study shows how the drivers of wood decay differ between Australian tropical rainforest and savanna; further research should test whether such differences apply world-wide.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)982-993
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Ecology
Issue number5
StateE-pub ahead of print - Mar 6 2023


  • decomposition
  • ecosystem function and services
  • fungi
  • microbes
  • savanna
  • soil carbon
  • termites
  • tropical forest
  • wood traits

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Plant Science


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