, Volume 218, Issue 1-2, pp 21-30

Chemistry and toughness predict leaf litter decomposition rates over a wide spectrum of functional types and taxa in central Argentina

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Abstract

Litter decomposition, a major determinant of ecosystem functioning, is strongly influenced by the litter quality of different species. We aimed at (1) relating interspecific variation in leaf litter decomposition rate to the functional types different species belong to; and (2) understanding the chemical and/or physical basis for such variation and its robustness to environmental factors. We selected 52 Angiosperms from a climatic gradient in central-western Argentina, representing the widest range of functional types and habitats published so far. Ten litter samples of each species were simultaneously buried for 9 weeks during the 1996 summer in an experimental decomposition bed. Decomposition rate was defined as the percentage of dry mass loss after incubation. Chemical litter quality was measured as carbon (C) content, nitrogen (N) content, and C-to-N ratio. Since tensile strength of litter and living leaves were strongly correlated, the latter was chosen as an indicator of physical litter quality. A subset of 15 species representing different functional types was also incubated in England for 15 weeks, following a similar experimental procedure. Litter C-to-N and leaf tensile strength of the leaves showed the strongest negative associations with decomposition rate, both at the species and at the functional-type level. Decomposition rates of the same species in Argentina and in England were strongly correlated. This reinforces previous evidence that species rankings in terms of litter decomposition rates are robust to methodological and environmental factors. This paper has shown new evidence of plant control over the turnover of organic matter through litter quality, and confirms, over a broad spectrum of functional types, general models of resource allocation. The strong correlations between leaf tensile strength – a trait that is easy and quick to measure in a large number of species – decomposition rate, and C-to-N ratio indicate that leaf tensile strength can be useful in linking plant quality to decomposition patterns at the ecosystem level.

This revised version was published online in August 2006 with corrections to the Cover Date.