Letter | Published:

Reduced feeding activity of soil detritivores under warmer and drier conditions


Anthropogenic warming is projected to trigger positive feedbacks to climate by enhancing carbon losses from the soil1. While such losses are, in part, due to increased decomposition of organic matter by invertebrate detritivores, it is unknown how detritivore feeding activity will change with warming2, especially under drought conditions. Here, using four-year manipulation experiments in two North American boreal forests, we investigate how temperature (ambient, ambient + 1.7 °C and ambient + 3.4 °C) and rainfall (ambient and –40% of the summer precipitation) perturbations influence detritivore feeding activity. In contrast to general expectations1,3, warming had negligible net effects on detritivore feeding activity at ambient precipitation. However, when combined with precipitation reductions, warming decreased feeding activity by ~14%. Across all plots and dates, detritivore feeding activity was positively associated with bulk soil microbial respiration. These results suggest slower rates of decomposition of soil organic matter and thus reduced positive feedbacks to climate under anthropogenic climate change.

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We gratefully acknowledge several interns who spent innumerable hours in the field assessing bait lamina strips. We are thankful to S. Zieger and J. Siebert for providing the images of detritivores and bait lamina strips, respectively. M.P.T. and N.E. acknowledge funding by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft in the frame of the Emmy Noether research group (Ei 862/2). This project also received support from the European Research Council under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement number 677232). Further support came from the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research Halle–Jena–Leipzig, funded by the German Research Foundation (FZT 118). The B4WarmED project is funded by the US Department of Energy (Grant number DE-FG02-07ER64456) and the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences at the University of Minnesota.

Author information

P.B.R. and S.E.H. conceived the B4WarmED experiment. N.E. conceived the study of soil detritivore feeding activity. A.S., R.R., K.E.R. and W.C.E. collected the data. M.P.T. developed the ideas for this manuscript, analysed the data and wrote the manuscript with substantial input from N.E. and P.B.R. All authors contributed to revisions.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Correspondence to Madhav P. Thakur.

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Supplementary Figures 1–12 and Supplementary Table 1.

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Fig. 1: Soil detritivore feeding activity in response to experiment warming and reduced precipitation.
Fig. 2: Interactive effects of soil temperature and soil water content on the feeding activity of soil detritivores.