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Effects of radionuclide contamination on leaf litter decomposition in the Chernobyl exclusion zone

Abstract : The effects of radioactive contamination on ecosystem processes such as litter decomposition remain largely un- known. Because radionuclides accumulated in soil and plant biomass can be harmful for organisms, the function- ing of ecosystems may be altered by radioactive contamination. Here, we tested the hypothesis that decomposition is impaired by increasing levels of radioactivity in the environment by exposing uncontaminated leaf litter from silver birch and black alder at (i) eleven distant forest sites differing in ambient radiation levels (0.22–15 μGy h−1) and (ii) along a short distance gradient of radioactive contamination (1.2–29 μGy h−1) within a single forest in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. In addition to measuring ambient external dose rates, we estimat- ed the average total dose rates (ATDRs) absorbed by decomposers for an accurate estimate of dose-induced eco- logical consequences of radioactive pollution. Taking into account potential confounding factors (soil pH, moisture, texture, and organic carbon content), the results from the eleven distant forest sites, and from the single forest, showed increased litter mass loss with increasing ATDRs from 0.3 to 150 μGy h−1. This unexpected result may be due to (i) overcompensation of decomposer organisms exposed to radionuclides leading to a higher decomposer abundance (hormetic effect), and/or (ii) from preferred feeding by decomposers on the un- contaminated leaf litter used for our experiment compared to locally produced, contaminated leaf litter. Our data indicate that radio-contamination of forest ecosystems over more than two decades does not necessarily have detrimental effects on organic matter decay. However, further studies are needed to unravel the underlying mechanisms of the results reported here, in order to draw firmer conclusions on how radio-contamination affects decomposition and associated ecosystem processes.
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Submitted on : Monday, July 18, 2016 - 10:27:16 AM
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Jean-Marc Bonzom, Stephan Hättenschwiler, Catherine Lecomte-Pradines, Eric Chauvet, Sergey Gaschak, et al.. Effects of radionuclide contamination on leaf litter decomposition in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Science of the Total Environment, Elsevier, 2016, vol. 562, pp. 596-603. ⟨10.1016/j.scitotenv.2016.04.006⟩. ⟨hal-01346001⟩

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