, Volume 162, Issue 3, pp 771–780 | Cite as

Litter decomposition and nutrient release as affected by soil nitrogen availability and litter quality in a semiarid grassland ecosystem

  • Ping Liu
  • Jianhui HuangEmail author
  • Osbert Jianxin Sun
  • Xingguo Han
Ecosystem ecology - Original paper


Nitrogen availability is critically important to litter decomposition, especially in arid and semiarid areas where N is limiting. We studied the relative contributions of litter quality and soil N to litter decomposition of two dominant grassland species, Stipa krylovii and Artemisia frigida, in a semiarid typical steppe ecosystem in Inner Mongolia, China. The study had four different rates of N addition (0, 8, 32, and 64 g N m−2 year−1), and litter samples were decomposed under varying site conditions and by litter types. Litter-mixing effects of the two species were also examined. We found that N addition increased litter N concentration and thus enhanced litter decomposition by improving substrate quality. This increase, however, was offset by the negative effect of increased soil N, resulting in a diminished effect of increased soil N availability on in situ litter decomposition. The positive effects of improved litter quality slightly out-performed the negative effects of increased soil N. Our further analysis revealed that the negative effect of increasing soil N on litter decomposition could be partially explained by reduced soil microbial biomass and activity. Decomposition was significantly faster for litters of a two-species mixture than litters of the single species, but the rate of litter decomposition did not differ much between the two species, suggesting that compositional balance, rather than changes in the dominance between Stipa and Artemisia, is more critical for litter decomposition, hence nutrient cycling in this ecosystem. This semiarid steppe ecosystem may become more conservative in nutrient use with switching of dominance from Artemisia to Stipa with increasing soil N, because Stipa has a slower decomposition rate and a higher nutrient retention rate than Artemisia.


Litter decomposition Nitrogen deposition Soil nitrogen availability Litter quality Nutrient dynamics 



The authors would like to thank Mathew Simmons, Dan Binkley and Jianguo Wu for their constructive suggestions during preparation of the manuscript. We also wish to thank the anonymous referees and the handling editor, Stephan Hättenschwiler, for their extremely helpful comments. This research was financially supported by the National Basic Research Program of China (2009CB421102; 973 Program) and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (30821062). We also thank the Duolun Restoration Ecology Research Station for permission to access the study site and for technical assistance.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ping Liu
    • 1
    • 3
  • Jianhui Huang
    • 1
    Email author
  • Osbert Jianxin Sun
    • 2
  • Xingguo Han
    • 1
  1. 1.State Key Laboratory of Vegetation and Environmental Change, Institute of BotanyChinese Academy of SciencesBeijingChina
  2. 2.MOE Key Laboratory for Silviculture and Conservation, College of Forest ScienceBeijing Forestry UniversityBeijingChina
  3. 3.Soil and Fertilizer InstituteShandong Academy of Agricultural SciencesJinanChina

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