Fine root decay rates vary widely among lowland tropical tree species
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Prolific fine root growth coupled with small accumulations of dead fine roots indicate rapid rates of fine root production, mortality and decay in young tree plantations in lowland Costa Rica. However, published studies indicate that fine roots decay relatively slowly in tropical forests. To resolve this discrepancy, we used the intact-core technique to quantify first-year decay rates of fine roots in four single-species plantations of native tree species. We tested three hypotheses: first, that fine roots from different tree species would decay at different rates; second, that species having rapid fine root growth rates would also have rapid rates of fine root decay; and third, that differences in fine root decay among species could be explained by fine root chemistry variables previously identified as influencing decay rates. Fine roots in Virolakoschnyi plantations decayed very slowly (k = 0.29 ± 0.15 year−1); those of Vochysiaguatemalensis decayed seven times faster (k = 2.00 ± 0.13 year−1). Decay rates of the remaining two species, Hieronyma alchorneoides and Pentaclethra macroloba, were 1.36 and 1.28 year−1, respectively. We found a positive, marginally significant correlation between fine root decay rates and the relative growth rates of live fine roots (R = 0.93, n = 4, P = 0.072). There was a highly significant negative correlation between fine root decay and fine root lignin:N (R = 0.99, P = 0.01), which supports the use of lignin:N as a decay-controlling factor within terrestrial ecosystem models. The decay rates that we observed in this single study location encompassed the entire range of fine root decay rates previously observed in moist tropical forests, and thus suggest great potential for individual tree species to alter belowground organic matter and nutrient dynamics within a biotically rich rainforest environment.