, Volume 163, Issue 1, pp 247-256
Date: 24 Dec 2009

The importance of biotic factors in predicting global change effects on decomposition of temperate forest leaf litter

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Increasing atmospheric CO2 and temperature are predicted to alter litter decomposition via changes in litter chemistry and environmental conditions. The extent to which these predictions are influenced by biotic factors such as litter species composition or decomposer activity, and in particular how these different factors interact, is not well understood. In a 5-week laboratory experiment we compared the decomposition of leaf litter from four temperate tree species (Fagus sylvatica, Quercus petraea, Carpinus betulus and Tilia platyphyllos) in response to four interacting factors: elevated CO2-induced changes in litter quality, a 3°C warmer environment during decomposition, changes in litter species composition, and presence/absence of a litter-feeding millipede (Glomeris marginata). Elevated CO2 and temperature had much weaker effects on decomposition than litter species composition and the presence of Glomeris. Mass loss of elevated CO2-grown leaf litter was reduced in Fagus and increased in Fagus/Tilia mixtures, but was not affected in any other leaf litter treatment. Warming increased litter mass loss in Carpinus and Tilia, but not in the other two litter species and in none of the mixtures. The CO2- and temperature-related differences in decomposition disappeared completely when Glomeris was present. Overall, fauna activity stimulated litter mass loss, but to different degrees depending on litter species composition, with a particularly strong effect on Fagus/Tilia mixtures (+58%). Higher fauna-driven mass loss was not followed by higher C mineralization over the relatively short experimental period. Apart from a strong interaction between litter species composition and fauna, the tested factors had little or no interactive effects on decomposition. We conclude that if global change were to result in substantial shifts in plant community composition and macrofauna abundance in forest ecosystems, these interacting biotic factors could have greater impacts on decomposition and biogeochemical cycles than rising atmospheric CO2 concentration and temperature.

Communicated by Amy Austin.