Plant and Soil

, Volume 328, Issue 1–2, pp 397–410 | Cite as

Direct and indirect control by snow cover over decomposition in alpine tundra along a snowmelt gradient

  • Florence BaptistEmail author
  • Nigel G. Yoccoz
  • Philippe Choler
Regular Article


We assessed direct and indirect effects of snow cover on litter decomposition and litter nitrogen release in alpine tundra. Direct effects are driven by the direct influence of snow cover on edaphoclimatic conditions, whereas indirect effects result from the filtering effect of snow cover on species’ abundance and traits. We compared the in situ decomposition of leaf litter from four dominant plant species (two graminoids, two shrubs) at early and late snowmelt locations using a two-year litter-bag experiment. A seasonal experiment was also performed to estimate the relative importance of winter and summer decomposition. We found that growth form (graminoids vs. shrubs) are the main determinants of decomposition rate. Direct effect of snow cover exerted only a secondary influence. Whatever the species, early snowmelt locations showed consistently reduced decomposition rates and delayed final stages of N mineralization. This lower decomposition rate was associated with freezing soil temperatures during winter. The results suggest that a reduced snow cover may have a weak and immediate direct effect on litter decomposition rates and N availability in alpine tundra. A much larger impact on nutrient cycling is likely to be mediated by longer term changes in the relative abundance of lignin-rich dwarf shrubs.


Growth form Nitrogen mineralization Snow cover Litter decomposition Alpine tundra 



We are grateful to Serge Aubert and to Céline Flahaut, Geneviève Girard, Cécile Bayle, Marie-Pascale Colace and Mathieu Chausson for their help in the field and in the laboratory. We gratefully thank Natalia Pérez Harguindeguy, Fabien Quétier, Matthew Robson, Mason Campbell and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on an earlier version of this manuscript. Logistical support was provided by the Station Alpine Joseph Fourier, the alpine field station of the University Joseph Fourier. The work was funded by the ANR-06-BLAN-0301 “Microalpes” project.

Supplementary material

11104_2009_119_MOESM1_ESM.doc (50 kb)
Table S1 Statistics and decay constants (k) from regression of litter mass remaining against time in years. Regressions were done for each species and snowmelt location separately (Experiment I). Values are the mean (se). (DOC 49 kb)
11104_2009_119_Fig7_ESM.gif (364 kb)
Fig. S1

Localization of the study sites in the mountain ranges of Grand Galibier and Grandes Rousses, South-Western French Alps (45°7′N, 6°5′E) and arrangement of the litter bags in early and late snowmelt locations in experiment I and II.

11104_2009_119_Fig7_ESM.tif (1.5 mb)
High resolution image (TIFF 1518 kb)
11104_2009_119_Fig8_ESM.gif (187 kb)
Fig. S2

Mass loss of standard litter set up in 2003 against mass loss of standard litter set up in 2004 (Experiment I). Each point corresponds to the mean of eight replicates ± se from one site and one year. Short dash line: linear regression to data, dotted line: linear regression when slope is forced to one, solid line 1:1 slope.

The slope of the relationship between the remaining biomass of SLII and SLI was not significantly different from one (slope = 0.85 ± 0.09, confidence intervals = [0.65, 1.04]), whereas the intercept was different from zero (intercept = 10.98 ± 4.75, t 1,11 = 2.31, P = 0.04). This indicates that decomposition was higher during the 2004–2006 than during 2003–2005. However, after constraining the slope to a value of 1, the intercept was greatly reduced (intercept: 2.65 ± 0.92, t 1,11 = 2.87 P = 0.01) and ranged from 0.62% to 4.67% of mass loss.

11104_2009_119_Fig8_ESM.tif (133 kb)
High resolution image (TIFF 133 kb)
11104_2009_119_Fig9_ESM.gif (374 kb)
Fig. S3

Raw data of litter mass loss after one and two years in the sites A, B and C in early (black) and late (white) snowmelt locations for Salix herbacea (a–b, year I and II respectively), Dryas octopetala (c–d, year I and II respectively), Carex foetida (e–f, year I and II respectively) and Kobresia myosuroides (g–h, year I and II respectively, Experiment I).

11104_2009_119_Fig9_ESM.tif (319 kb)
High resolution image (TIFF 319 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • Florence Baptist
    • 1
    Email author
  • Nigel G. Yoccoz
    • 2
  • Philippe Choler
    • 1
    • 3
  1. 1.Laboratoire d’Ecologie Alpine, UMR 5553 CNRS-UJFUniversité de Grenoble, BP 53Grenoble Cedex 09France
  2. 2.Department of BiologyUniversity of TromsøTromsøNorway
  3. 3.Station Alpine J. Fourier, UMS 2925 CNRS-UJFUniversité de GrenobleGrenoble Cedex 09France

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