Regular Article

Plant and Soil

, Volume 372, Issue 1, pp 167-176

First online:

Microbial communities may modify how litter quality affects potential decomposition rates as tree species migrate

  • Ashley D. KeiserAffiliated withSchool of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University Email author 
  • , Jennifer D. KnoeppAffiliated withUSDA Forest Service Southern Research Station, Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory
  • , Mark A. BradfordAffiliated withSchool of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University

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Background and aims

Climate change alters regional plant species distributions, creating new combinations of litter species and soil communities. Biogeographic patterns in microbial communities relate to dissimilarity in microbial community function, meaning novel litters to communities may decompose differently than predicted from their chemical composition. Therefore, the effect of a litter species in the biogeochemical cycle of its current environment may not predict patterns after migration. Under a tree migration sequence we test whether litter quality alone drives litter decomposition, or whether soil communities modify quality effects.


Litter and soils were sampled across an elevation gradient of different overstory species where lower elevation species are predicted to migrate upslope. We use a common garden, laboratory microcosm design (soil community x litter environment) with single and mixed-species litters.


We find significant litter quality and microbial community effects (P < 0.001), explaining 47 % of the variation in decomposition for mixed-litters.


Soil community effects are driven by the functional breadth, or historical exposure, of the microbial communities, resulting in lower decomposition of litters inoculated with upslope communities. The litter x soil community interaction suggests that litter decomposition rates in forests of changing tree species composition will be a product of both litter quality and the recipient soil community.


Litter decomposition Carbon mineralization Microbial community function Functional breadth Environmental gradient