Highly reduced mass loss rates and increased litter layer in radioactively contaminated areas
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The effects of radioactive contamination from Chernobyl on decomposition of plant material still remain unknown. We predicted that decomposition rate would be reduced in the most contaminated sites due to an absence or reduced densities of soil invertebrates. If microorganisms were the main agents responsible for decomposition, exclusion of large soil invertebrates should not affect decomposition. In September 2007 we deposited 572 bags with uncontaminated dry leaf litter from four species of trees in the leaf litter layer at 20 forest sites around Chernobyl that varied in background radiation by more than a factor 2,600. Approximately one quarter of these bags were made of a fine mesh that prevented access to litter by soil invertebrates. These bags were retrieved in June 2008, dried and weighed to estimate litter mass loss. Litter mass loss was 40 % lower in the most contaminated sites relative to sites with a normal background radiation level for Ukraine. Similar reductions in litter mass loss were estimated for individual litter bags, litter bags at different sites, and differences between litter bags at pairs of neighboring sites differing in level of radioactive contamination. Litter mass loss was slightly greater in the presence of large soil invertebrates than in their absence. The thickness of the forest floor increased with the level of radiation and decreased with proportional loss of mass from all litter bags. These findings suggest that radioactive contamination has reduced the rate of litter mass loss, increased accumulation of litter, and affected growth conditions for plants.