, 11:701 | Cite as

Litterfall and Decomposition in Relation to Soil Carbon Pools Along a Secondary Forest Chronosequence in Puerto Rico

  • Rebecca OstertagEmail author
  • Erika Marín-Spiotta
  • Whendee L. Silver
  • Jodie Schulten


Secondary forests are becoming increasingly widespread in the tropics, but our understanding of how secondary succession affects carbon (C) cycling and C sequestration in these ecosystems is limited. We used a well-replicated 80-year pasture to forest successional chronosequence and primary forest in Puerto Rico to explore the relationships among litterfall, litter quality, decomposition, and soil C pools. Litterfall rates recovered rapidly during early secondary succession and averaged 10.5 (± 0.1 SE) Mg/ha/y among all sites over a 2-year period. Although forest plant community composition and plant life form dominance changed during succession, litter chemistry as evaluated by sequential C fractions and by 13C-nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy did not change significantly with forest age, nor did leaf decomposition rates. Root decomposition was slower than leaves and was fastest in the 60-year-old sites and slowest in the 10- and 30-year-old sites. Common litter and common site experiments suggested that site conditions were more important controls than litter quality in this chronosequence. Bulk soil C content was positively correlated with hydrophobic leaf compounds, suggesting that there is greater soil C accumulation if leaf litter contains more tannins and waxy compounds relative to more labile compounds. Our results suggest that most key C fluxes associated with litter production and decomposition re-establish rapidly—within a decade or two—during tropical secondary succession. Therefore, recovery of leaf litter C cycling processes after pasture use are faster than aboveground woody biomass and species accumulation, indicating that these young secondary forests have the potential to recover litter cycling functions and provide some of the same ecosystem services of primary forests.


litter; roots; reforestation; secondary succession; soil organic matter; 13C-NMR 



This research was supported primarily by NSF grants DEB0129104 to WLS, and in part by BSR-8811902, DEB-9411973, DEB-008538, and DEB-0218039 to the Institute of Tropical Ecosystem Studies, UPR, and USDA-IITF as part of the Long-term Ecological Research Program in the Luquillo Experimental Forest. Additional support was provided by the Forest Service (U.S. Department of Agriculture) and the University of Puerto Rico. This work was done under the California Agricultural Experiment Station project 7069-MS (WLS). EMS was supported by the Department of Energy Global Change Education Program. Support for the Analytical Laboratory at University of Hawaii at Hilo was provided by NSF Award #0237065, Investing in Multidisciplinary University Activities through Hawaii EPSCoR, James Gaines Principal Investigator, and Donald Price, Kenneth Kaneshiro Co-Investigators. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. A portion of the research described in this paper was performed in collaboration with Sarah D. Burton under User Proposal 7200 in the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, a national scientific user facility sponsored by the DOE BER and located at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. The following provided invaluable lab and field help: Jaime Enoka, Mario Flores Mangual, Heidy Sierra-Roque, Keiko Publico, Christian Torres, Daniel Keck, Jimmy Chung, Harriet Jung, and Yuchen Cao. We thank Mitch Aide, John Pascarella, and Jess Zimmerman for inviting us to Cayey and the landowners and neighbors for site access. Logistical support and lodging in Puerto Rico was provided by Fred Scatena and Ariel Lugo, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) International Institute of Tropical Forestry (IITF), the Reserva Estuarina de Bahía de Jobos, the Reserva Forestal de Carite, and University of Puerto Rico (UPR)-Cayey. Proximate analyses were provided by Brad Dewey of the University of Minnesota-Duluth and elemental analyses by Randi Schneider at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Rebecca Ostertag
    • 1
    Email author
  • Erika Marín-Spiotta
    • 2
    • 3
  • Whendee L. Silver
    • 2
  • Jodie Schulten
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of BiologyUniversity of Hawai’i at HiloHiloUSA
  2. 2.Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and ManagementUniversity of CaliforniaBerkeleyUSA
  3. 3.Department of GeographyUniversity of CaliforniaSanta BarbaraUSA

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