, Volume 288, Issue 1-2, pp 197-215

Nutrient fluxes via litterfall and leaf litter decomposition vary across a gradient of soil nutrient supply in a lowland tropical rain forest

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Abstract

The extent to which plant communities are determined by resource availability is a central theme in ecosystem science, but patterns of small-scale variation in resource availability are poorly known. Studies of carbon (C) and nutrient cycling provide insights into factors limiting tree growth and forest productivity. To investigate rates of tropical forest litter production and decomposition in relation to nutrient availability and topography in the absence of confounding large-scale variation in climate and altitude we quantified nutrient fluxes via litterfall and leaf litter decomposition within three distinct floristic associations of tropical rain forest growing along a soil fertility gradient at the Sepilok Forest Reserve (SFR), Sabah, Malaysia. The quantity and nutrient content of small litter decreased along a gradient of soil nutrient availability from alluvial forest (most fertile) through sandstone forest to heath forest (least fertile). Temporal variation in litterfall was greatest in the sandstone forest, where the amount of litter was correlated negatively with rainfall in the previous month. Mass loss and N and P release were fastest from alluvial forest litter, and slowest from heath forest litter. All litter types decomposed most rapidly in the alluvial forest. Stand-level N and P use efficiencies (ratios of litter dry mass to nutrient content) were greatest for the heath forest followed by the sandstone ridge, sandstone valley and alluvial forests, respectively. We conclude that nutrient supply limits productivity most in the heath forest and least in the alluvial forest. Nutrient supply limited productivity in sandstone forest, especially on ridge and hill top sites where nutrient limitation may be exacerbated by reduced rates of litter decomposition during dry periods. The fluxes of N and P varied significantly between the different floristic communities at SFR and these differences may contribute to small-scale variation in species composition.