Muskoxen homogenise soil microbial communities and affect the abundance of methanogens and methanotrophs

Marie Rønne Aggerbeck, Tue Kjærgaard Nielsen, Jesper Bruun Mosbacher, Niels Martin Schmidt, Lars Hestbjerg Hansen

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Grazing herbivores may affect soil microbial communities indirectly by impacting soil structure and vegetation composition. In high arctic environments, this impact is poorly elucidated, while having potentially wide-reaching effects on the ecosystem. This study examines how a key arctic herbivore, the muskox Ovibos moschatus, affects the soil microbial community in a high arctic fen. Environmental DNA was extracted from soil samples taken from grazed control plots and from muskox exclosures established 5 years prior. We sequenced amplicons of the 16S rRNA gene to provide insight into the microbial communities. We found that in the grazed control plots, microbial communities exhibited high evenness and displayed highly similar overall diversity. In plots where muskoxen had been excluded, microbial diversity was significantly reduced, and had more uneven intra-sample populations and overall lower ecological richness and evenness. We observed that the composition of microbial communities in grazed soils were significantly affected by the presence of muskoxen, as seen by elevated relative abundances of Bacteroides and Firmicutes, two major phyla found in muskox faeces. Furthermore, an increase in relative abundance of bacteria involved in degradation of recalcitrant carbohydrates and cycling of nitrogen was observed in grazed soil. Ungrazed soils displayed increased abundances of bacteria potentially involved in anaerobic oxidation of methane, whereas some methanogens were more abundant in grazed soils. This corroborates a previous finding that methane emissions are higher in arctic fens under muskox grazing. Our results show that the presence of large herbivores stimulates soil microbial diversity and has a homogenizing influence on the inter-species dynamics in soil microbial communities. The findings of this study, thus, improve our understanding of the effect of herbivore grazing on arctic ecosystems and the derived methane cycling.
Original languageEnglish
Article number153877
JournalScience of the total Environment
Publication statusPublished - 2022

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