Litter evenness influences short-term peatland decomposition processes
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There is concern that changes in climate and land use could increase rates of decomposition in peatlands, leading to release of stored C to the atmosphere. Rates of decomposition are driven by abiotic factors such as temperature and moisture, but also by biotic factors such as changes in litter quality resulting from vegetation change. While effects of litter species identity and diversity on decomposition processes are well studied, the impact of changes in relative abundance (evenness) of species has received less attention. In this study we investigated effects of changes in short-term peatland plant species evenness on decomposition in mixed litter assemblages, measured as litter weight loss, respired CO2 and leachate C and N. We found that over the 307-day incubation period, higher levels of species evenness increased rates of decomposition in mixed litters, measured as weight loss and leachate dissolved organic N. We also found that the identity of the dominant species influenced rates of decomposition, measured as weight loss, CO2 flux and leachate N. Greatest rates of decomposition were when the dwarf shrub Calluna vulgaris dominated litter mixtures, and lowest rates when the bryophyte Pleurozium schreberi dominated. Interactions between evenness and dominant species identity were also detected for litter weight loss and leachate N. In addition, positive non-additive effects of mixing litter were observed for litter weight loss. Our findings highlight the importance of changes in the evenness of plant community composition for short-term decomposition processes in UK peatlands.