Does nitrogen availability control rates of litter decomposition in forests?
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The effects of increased exogenous N availability on rates of litter decomposition were assessed in several field fertilization trials. In a jack pine (Pinus banksiana Lamb.) forest, needle litter decomposed at the same rate in control plots and in plots fertilized with urea and ammonium nitrate (1350 kg N ha-1) with or without P and K. Mixed needle litter of western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla (Raf.) Sarg.), western red cedar (Thuja plicata Donn) and Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii (Mirb.) Franco) incubated in plots recently amended with sewage sludge (500 kg N ha-1) lost less weight during 3 years than did litter in control plots. Forest floor material also decomposed more slowly in plots amended with sewage sludge. Paper birch (Betula papyrifera Marsh.) leaf litter placed on sewage sludge (1000 kg N ha-1), pulp sludge, or sewage-pulp sludge mixtures decomposed at the same rate as leaf litter in control plots. These experiments demonstrate little effect of exogenous N availability on rates of litter decomposition.
The influence of endogenous N availability on rates of litter decomposition was examined in a microcosm experiment. Lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta var. latifolia Engelm.) needle litter collected from N-fertilized trees (525 kg N ha-1 in ammonium nitrate) were 5 times richer in N than needles from control trees (1.56% N versus 0.33% N in control trees), but decomposed at the same rate. Green needles from fertilized trees contained twice as much N as needles from control trees (1.91% N versus 0.88% N), but decomposed at the same rate. These experiments suggest that N availability alone, either exogenous or endogenous, does not control rates of litter decomposition. Increased N availability, through fertilization or deposition, in the absence of changes in vegetation composition, will not alter rates of litter decomposition in forests.
Key wordsdecomposition fertilization forests litter nitrogen
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