, Volume 367, Issue 1-2, pp 183-197

Decoupled responses of tree and shrub leaf and litter trait values to ecosystem retrogression across an island area gradient

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In the long term absence of catastrophic disturbance ecosystem retrogression occurs, and this is characterized by reduced soil fertility, and impairment of plant biomass and productivity. The response of plant traits to retrogression remains little explored. We investigated how changes plant traits and litter decomposability shift during retrogression for dominant trees and understory shrubs.


We characterized changes in intraspecific, interspecific and community-averaged values of plant traits and litter decomposability, for six abundant species across thirty lake islands in boreal forest that undergo retrogression with increasing time since fire.


For understory shrubs, trait values and litter decomposability often changed as soil fertility declined in a manner reflective of greater conservation (versus acquisition) of nutrients, particularly at the interspecific and whole community levels. Such responses were seldom observed for trees, meaning that trees and shrubs show a decoupled response to declining soil fertility during retrogression.


Our results only partially agree with previous studies on temperate and subtropical retrogressive chronosequences. Because traits of only shrubs were responsive, they also highlight that impairment of belowground ecosystem processes during retrogression is primarily driven by changes in the trait spectra of understory vegetation rather than that of the trees.

Responsible Editor: Hans Lambers.