, Volume 162, Issue 2, pp 479-489,
Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.
Date: 13 Sep 2009

Neighbour identity hardly affects litter-mixture effects on decomposition rates of New Zealand forest species


The mass loss of litter mixtures is often different than expected based on the mass loss of the component species. We investigated if the identity of neighbour species affects these litter-mixing effects. To achieve this, we compared decomposition rates in monoculture and in all possible two-species combinations of eight tree species, widely differing in litter chemistry, set out in two contrasting New Zealand forest types. Litter from the mixed-species litter bags was separated into its component species, which allowed us to quantify the importance of litter-mixing effects and neighbour identity, relative to the effects of species identity, litter chemistry and litter incubation environment. Controlling factors on litter decomposition rate decreased in importance in the order: species identity (litter quality) >> forest type >> neighbour species. Species identity had the strongest influence on decomposition rate. Interspecific differences in initial litter lignin concentration explained a large proportion of the interspecific differences in litter decomposition rate. Litter mass loss was higher and litter-mixture effects were stronger on the younger, more fertile alluvial soils than on the older, less-fertile marine terrace soils. Litter-mixture effects only shifted percentage mass loss within the range of 1.5%. There was no evidence that certain litter mixtures consistently showed interactive effects. Contrary to common theory, adding a relatively fast-decomposing species generally slowed down the decomposition of the slower decomposing species in the mixture. This study shows that: (1) species identity, litter chemistry and forest type are quantitatively the most important drivers of litter decomposition in a New Zealand rain forest; (2) litter-mixture effects—although statistically significant—are far less important and hardly depend on the identity and the chemical characteristics of the neighbour species; (3) additive effects predominate in this ecosystem, so that mass dynamics of the mixtures can be predicted from the monocultures.

Communicated by Stephan Hattenschwiler.