Outside of the humid tropics, abiotic factors are generally considered the dominant regulators of decomposition, and biotic influences are frequently not considered in predicting decomposition rates. In this study, I examined the effect of termite assemblage composition and abundance on decomposition of wood litter of an indigenous species (Croton megalobotrys) in five terrestrial habitats of the highly seasonal semiarid Okavango Delta region of northern Botswana, to determine whether natural variation in decomposer community composition and abundance influences decomposition rates. 1 conducted the study in two areas, Xudum and Santawani, with the Xudum study preceding the Santawani study. I assessed termite assemblage composition and abundance using a grid of survey baits (rolls of toilet paper) placed on the soil surface and checked 2-4 times/month. I placed a billet (a section of wood litter) next to each survey bait and measured decomposition in a plot by averaging the mass loss of its billets. Decomposition rates varied up to sixfold among plots within the same habitat and locality, despite the fact that these plots experienced the same climate. In addition, billets decomposed significantly faster during the cooler and drier Santawani study, contradicting climate-based predictions. Because termite incidence was generally higher in Santawani plots, termite abundance initially seemed a likely determinant of decomposition in this system. However, no significant effect of termite incidence on billet mass loss rates was observed among the Xudum plots, where decomposition rates remained low even though termite incidence varied considerably. Considering the incidences of fungus-growing termites and non-fungus-growing termites separately resolves this apparent contradiction: in both Santawani and Xudum, only fungus-growing termites play a significant role in decomposition. This result is mirrored in an analysis of the full data set of combined Xudum and Santawani data. The determination that natural variation in the abundance of a single taxonomic group of soil fauna, a termite subfamily, determines almost all observed variation in decomposition rates supports the emerging view that biotic influences may be important in many biomes and that consideration of decomposer community composition and abundance may be critical for accurate prediction of decomposition rates. ?? 2005 by the Ecological Society of America.
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Decomposition rates and termite assemblage composition in semiarid Africa