, Volume 85, Issue 1, pp 8-13

The role of litter in an old-field community: impact of litter quantity in different seasons on plant species richness and abundance

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We studied the effect of removing and adding plant litter in different seasons on biomass, density, and species richness in a Solidago dominated old-field community in New Jersey, USA. We removed all the naturally accumulated plant litter in November (658 g/m2) and in May (856 g/m2) and doubled the amount of litter in November and May in replicated plots (1 m2). An equal number of plots were left as controls. Litter removal and addition had little impact on total plant biomass or individual species biomass in the growing season following the manipulations. Litter removal, however, significantly increased plant densities but this varied depending upon the season of litter removal, species, and life history type. Specifically, the fall litter removal had a much greater impact than the spring litter removal suggesting that litter has its greatest impact after plant senescence in the fall and prior to major periods of early plant growth in spring. Annual species showed the greatest response, especially early in the growing season. Both spring and fall litter removal significantly increased species richness throughout the study. Litter additions in both spring and fall reduced both plant densities and species richness in June, but these differences disappeared near the end of the growing season in September. We concluded than in productive communities where litter accumulation may be substantial, litter may promote low species richness and plant density. This explanation does not invoke resource competition for the decline in species richness. Finally, we hypothesize that there may be broad thresholds of litter accumulation in different community types that may act to either increase or decrease plant yield and diversity.