, Volume 1, Issue 2, pp 117-131

Litter decomposition and nitrogen mineralization in oak stands along an urban-rural land use gradient

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We investigated litter mass loss and soil nitrogen (N)-transformation rates in oak stands along a 130-km, urban-rural transect originating in New York City to examine the relationship between changes in these parameters and previously documented differences in soil temperature, heavy metal and total salt concentrations, and soil biota. Reference litter from a rural site was placed in litterbags, and rates of mass loss and changes in N concentration in litter residues were measured over a 6-month period. Net N-mineralization and nitrification rates were measured in A horizon soils using laboratory incubations under constant moisture and temperature. Both mass loss (76%) and N release (65%) from litterbags reached their maximum in urban stands, whereas net N-mineralization rates were 2.3-fold higher than in rural A horizon soils. Litter fragmentation by earthworms and higher soil temperatures are potential causes of the higher mass loss rates observed in urban stands. The higher releases of N measured in the urban litterbags could be a result of their faster mass loss rates, exogenous inputs of N from atmospheric deposition, a relatively low heterotrophic demand for N, or a combination of these factors. The results of this study suggest that in comparison with rural stands, urban forests are characterized by comparatively high rates of litter decomposition, and may also be characterized by comparatively high rates of N mineralization. Additional studies are needed to test whether these effects are common to urban environments in general.