Fire regimes are shifting under climate change. Decadal-scale shifts in fire regime can disrupt the biogeochemical cycling of carbon (C), nitrogen (N), and phosphorus (P) within forest ecosystems, but the full extent of these disruptions is unknown. It is also unclear whether these disruptions have consequences for the ecological characteristics (e.g., biomass, abundance, and composition) of microbial and invertebrate communities, which together comprise the majority of terrestrial biodiversity and underpin many ecosystem processes. The theoretical framework of ecological stoichiometry has great potential in this context, but it has rarely been used to develop an integrated understanding of the biogeochemical and ecological effects of altered fire regime across trophic levels. Using one of the world's longest-running fire experiments, located in Queensland, Australia, we carried out a comprehensive investigation into the stoichiometric consequences of a decadal-scale divergence in prescribed fire frequency and their links to coinciding changes in various ecological characteristics of forest floor microbial and invertebrate communities. Compared to long-term fire exclusion, forty-three years of biennial burning led to significantly N-depleted and/or P-enriched stoichiometry in soil, leaf litter, leaf litter–associated microbial biomass, and certain groups of invertebrates, although total invertebrate community stoichiometry was not affected. Microbial biomass was 42% lower in biennially burned soils. Invertebrate community composition differed between fire regime treatments on some sampling dates, but fire regime did not have consistent effects on invertebrate biomass or abundance. Microbial biomass and the abundances of some invertebrate taxa were depressed at particularly low and/or high resource N:P, consistent with a coupling of these variables to the stoichiometric effects of decadal-scale fire regime. Litter transplants likewise indicated that some invertebrate abundances were sensitive to litter properties over 12 months. Together, our results indicate that long-term changes in fire regime can decouple the within-ecosystem cycling of N and P, with N and P cycling growing more and less conservative, respectively, under high-frequency fire in a way that propagates throughout forest floor food webs. Our study provides new insights into the coupled biogeochemical and ecological responses of forest ecosystems to novel fire regimes and establishes a basis for a stoichiometric framework for fire ecology.
- biogeochemical cycling
- microbial biomass