Structural and functional characteristics of high alpine soil macro-invertebrate communities
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Soil macro-invertebrates play an important role in the formation and functioning of soils, which makes them indispensable for all terrestrial ecosystems, including high alpine soils. However, in the latter, knowledge on species identity, diversity, and functionality of macro-invertebrate soil communities is scarce. Here, we address this knowledge gap by investigating the structural and functional composition of soil macro-invertebrate communities in high alpine sites of the European Alps that differ in sheep grazing intensity (low, medium, and high). Abundance data were combined with the analysis of natural variations in stable isotope ratios (13C/12C, 15N/14N) of food sources and soil animals, allowing insight into the trophic structure of the decomposer community. The presence of sheep significantly increased the abundance of Nematocera, but reduced the abundance of most other taxa. Diplopoda were found exclusively at the low elevation site with almost no sheep grazing, while Diptera larvae increased in numbers at higher elevation sites. Lumbricidae species were abundant at all sites except the highest site, which was intensively grazed by sheep and also used as a resting place. In contrast, trophic relations were not affected by sheep grazing intensity, four trophic groups were clearly distinguished, pointing to a relatively simple food web structure: (1) primary decomposers, (2) secondary decomposers and dung feeders, (3) root and fungal feeders, and (4) predators. We suggest that the shallow soils with high organic matter do not allow the formation of more complex food webs.