Extensive belowground carbon storage supports roots and mycorrhizae in regenerating scrub oaks
Portions of a regenerating scrub oak ecosystem were enclosed in open-top chambers and exposed to elevated CO2. The distinct 13C signal of the supplemental CO2 was used to trace the rate of C integration into various ecosystem components. Oak foliage, stems, roots and ectomycorrhizae were sampled over 3 years and were analyzed for 13C composition. The aboveground tissue 13C equilibrated to the novel 13C signal in the first season, while the belowground components displayed extremely slow integration of the new C. Roots taken from ingrowth cores showed that 33% of the C in newly formed roots originated from a source other than recent photosynthesis inside the chamber. In this highly fire-prone system, the oaks re-establish primarily by resprouting from large rhizomes. Remobilization from belowground C stores may support fine roots and mycorrhizae for several years into stand re-establishment and, therefore, may explain why belowground tissues contain less of the new photosynthate than expected. Though it has been shown that long-term cycles of C storage are theoretically advantageous for plants in systems with frequent and severe disturbances, such patterns have not been previously examined in wild systems.