Placing the Effects of Leaf Litter Diversity on Saprotrophic Microorganisms in the Context of Leaf Type and Habitat
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Because of conflicting results in previous studies, it is unclear whether litter diversity has a predictable impact on microbial communities or ecosystem processes. We examined whether effects of litter diversity depend on factors that could confound comparisons among previous studies, including leaf type, habitat type, identity of other leaves in the mixture, and spatial covariance at two scales within habitats. We also examined how litter diversity affects the saprotrophic microbial community using terminal restriction fragment length polymorphism to profile bacterial and fungal community composition, direct microscopy to quantify bacterial biomass, and ergosterol extraction to quantify fungal biomass. We found that leaf mixture diversity was rarely significant as a main effect (only for fungal biomass), but was often significant as an interaction with leaf type (for ash-free dry mass recovered, carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, fungal biomass, and bacterial community composition). Leaf type and habitat were significant as main effects for all response variables. The majority of variance in leaf ash-free dry mass and C/N ratio was explained after accounting for treatment effects and spatial covariation at the meter (block) and centimeter (litterbag) scales. However, a substantial amount of variability in microbial communities was left unexplained and must be driven by factors at other spatial scales or more complex spatiotemporal dynamics. We conclude that litter diversity effects are primarily dependent on leaf type, rather than habitat type or identity of surrounding leaves, which can guide the search for mechanisms underlying effects of litter diversity on ecosystem processes.