, Volume 110, Issue 3, pp 387-392

Will rising atmospheric CO2 affect leaf litter quality and in situ decomposition rates in native plant communities?

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Though field data for naturally senesced leaf litter are rare, it is commonly assumed that rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations will reduce leaf litter quality and decomposition rates in terrestrial ecosystems and that this will lead to decreased rates of nutrient cycling and increased carbon sequestration in native ecosystems. We generally found that the quality of␣naturally senesced leaf litter (i.e. concentrations of C, N and lignin; C:N, lignin:N) of a variety of native plant species produced in alpine, temperate and tropical communities maintained at elevated CO2 (600–680 μl l−1) was not significantly different from that produced in similar communities maintained at current ambient CO2 concentrations (340–355 μl l−1). When this litter was allowed to decompose in situ in a humid tropical forest in Panama (Cecropia peltata, Elettaria cardamomum, and Ficus benjamina, 130 days exposure) and in a lowland temperate calcareous grassland in Switzerland (Carex flacca and a graminoid species mixture; 261 days exposure), decomposition rates of litter produced under ambient and elevated CO2 did not differ significantly. The one exception to this pattern occurred in the high alpine sedge, Carex curvula, growing in the Swiss Alps. Decomposition of litter produced in situ under elevated CO2 was significantly slower than that of litter produced under ambient CO2 (14% vs. 21% of the initial litter mass had decomposed over a 61-day exposure period, respectively). Overall, our results indicate that relatively little or no change in leaf litter quality can be expected in plant communities growing under soil fertilities common in many native ecosystems as atmospheric CO2 concentrations continue to rise. Even in situations where small reductions in litter quality do occur, these may not necessarily lead to significantly slower rates of decomposition. Hence in many native species in situ litter decomposition rates, and the time course of decomposition, may remain relatively unaffected by rising CO2.

Received: 12 September 1996 / Accepted: 30 November 1996