, Volume 185, Issue 3, pp 499–511 | Cite as

Root chemistry and soil fauna, but not soil abiotic conditions explain the effects of plant diversity on root decomposition

  • Hongmei ChenEmail author
  • Natalie J. Oram
  • Kathryn E. Barry
  • Liesje Mommer
  • Jasper van Ruijven
  • Hans de Kroon
  • Anne Ebeling
  • Nico Eisenhauer
  • Christine Fischer
  • Gerd Gleixner
  • Arthur Gessler
  • Odette González Macé
  • Nina Hacker
  • Anke Hildebrandt
  • Markus Lange
  • Michael Scherer-Lorenzen
  • Stefan Scheu
  • Yvonne Oelmann
  • Cameron Wagg
  • Wolfgang Wilcke
  • Christian Wirth
  • Alexandra Weigelt
Ecosystem ecology – original research


Plant diversity influences many ecosystem functions including root decomposition. However, due to the presence of multiple pathways via which plant diversity may affect root decomposition, our mechanistic understanding of their relationships is limited. In a grassland biodiversity experiment, we simultaneously assessed the effects of three pathways—root litter quality, soil biota, and soil abiotic conditions—on the relationships between plant diversity (in terms of species richness and the presence/absence of grasses and legumes) and root decomposition using structural equation modeling. Our final structural equation model explained 70% of the variation in root mass loss. However, different measures of plant diversity included in our model operated via different pathways to alter root mass loss. Plant species richness had a negative effect on root mass loss. This was partially due to increased Oribatida abundance, but was weakened by enhanced root potassium (K) concentration in more diverse mixtures. Equally, grass presence negatively affected root mass loss. This effect of grasses was mostly mediated via increased root lignin concentration and supported via increased Oribatida abundance and decreased root K concentration. In contrast, legume presence showed a net positive effect on root mass loss via decreased root lignin concentration and increased root magnesium concentration, both of which led to enhanced root mass loss. Overall, the different measures of plant diversity had contrasting effects on root decomposition. Furthermore, we found that root chemistry and soil biota but not root morphology or soil abiotic conditions mediated these effects of plant diversity on root decomposition.


Species richness Functional groups Root litter Jena Experiment SEM 



The Jena Experiment was funded by the German Science Foundation (DFG, FOR 1451) and was supported by the Friedrich-Schiller-University Jena and the Max Planck Society. We thank the gardeners of the Jena Experiment for maintaining the plots and student helpers for the field work and sample preparation.

Data accessibility

Root mass loss, root C:N ratio, and soil water content are deposited at the Jena Experiment database and will be accessible via Dryad Digital Repository (Chen et al. 2017). The rest of the data are deposited at the Jena Experiment database and will be deposited at Pangaea (

Author contribution statement

LM, JR, AG, MSL, and AW designed the experiment. HC, CF, OGM, NH, and ML collected the data. HC analyzed the data and wrote the manuscript with input from KB and AW. All authors provided input on the final written manuscript.

Compliance with ethical standards


The Jena Experiment was funded by the German Science Foundation (DFG, FOR 1451). LM was funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO, Vidi Grant 864.14.006). MSL was funded by the DFG (Gl262/14 and Gl262/19). YO was funded by the DFG (Oe516/3-2), WW was funded by the DFG (Wi1601/4) and the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNF, 200021E-131195/1).

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

All applicable institutional and/or national guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed.

Supplementary material

442_2017_3962_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (981 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (PDF 982 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Hongmei Chen
    • 1
    Email author
  • Natalie J. Oram
    • 2
  • Kathryn E. Barry
    • 1
  • Liesje Mommer
    • 2
  • Jasper van Ruijven
    • 2
  • Hans de Kroon
    • 3
  • Anne Ebeling
    • 4
  • Nico Eisenhauer
    • 5
    • 6
  • Christine Fischer
    • 7
    • 8
  • Gerd Gleixner
    • 9
  • Arthur Gessler
    • 10
    • 11
  • Odette González Macé
    • 12
  • Nina Hacker
    • 13
  • Anke Hildebrandt
    • 5
    • 7
    • 9
  • Markus Lange
    • 9
  • Michael Scherer-Lorenzen
    • 14
  • Stefan Scheu
    • 12
  • Yvonne Oelmann
    • 13
  • Cameron Wagg
    • 15
  • Wolfgang Wilcke
    • 16
  • Christian Wirth
    • 1
    • 5
    • 9
  • Alexandra Weigelt
    • 1
    • 5
  1. 1.Spezielle Botanik und Funktionelle Biodiversität, Institute of BiologyLeipzig UniversityLeipzigGermany
  2. 2.Plant Ecology and Nature Conservation GroupWageningen UniversityWageningenThe Netherlands
  3. 3.Department of Experimental Plant Ecology, Institute for Water and Wetland ResearchRadboud UniversityNijmegenThe Netherlands
  4. 4.Population Ecology Group, Institute of EcologyFriedrich-Schiller-University JenaJenaGermany
  5. 5.German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena-LeipzigLeipzigGermany
  6. 6.Institute of BiologyLeipzig UniversityLeipzigGermany
  7. 7.Institute of GeosciencesFriedrich-Schiller-University JenaJenaGermany
  8. 8.Department of Conservation BiologyHelmholtz Centre for Environmental Research-UFZLeipzigGermany
  9. 9.Max-Planck-Institute for BiogeochemistryJenaGermany
  10. 10.Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research-WSLBirmensdorfSwitzerland
  11. 11.Berlin-Brandenburg Institute of Advanced Biodiversity Research (BBIB)BerlinGermany
  12. 12.Animal Ecology Group, JF Blumenbach Institute of Zoology and AnthropologyGöttingen UniversityGöttingenGermany
  13. 13.GeoecologyUniversity of TübingenTübingenGermany
  14. 14.Geobotany, Faculty of BiologyUniversity of FreiburgFreiburgGermany
  15. 15.Department of Evolutionary Ecology and Environmental StudiesUniversity of ZurichZurichSwitzerland
  16. 16.Institute of Geography and GeoecologyKarlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT)KarlsruheGermany

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