Plant and Soil

, Volume 400, Issue 1–2, pp 337–350 | Cite as

Impact of species diversity, stand age and environmental factors on leaf litter decomposition in subtropical forests in China

  • Stefan TrogischEmail author
  • Jin-Sheng He
  • Andy Hector
  • Michael Scherer-Lorenzen
Regular Article


Background and aims

Tree diversity is considered to influence decomposition either by changing environmental conditions or by non-additive litter mixture effects. Thus, we examined the influence of tree species richness, forest age and environmental factors on single-species decomposition, and tested the hypothesis that high litter species diversity induces predominantly positive non-additive mixture effects on decomposition processes.


Decomposition trials using litter bags were performed in subtropical forests in China. Plot-specific decompositions rates of the abundant species Schima superba were related to environmental factors across 27 forest stands differing in age and tree species richness. Effects of litter species diversity on decomposition and N loss was assessed based on 27 plot-specific litter mixtures comprising 7 to 17 species.


Decomposition rate of Schima superba leaf litter was mainly affected by stand characteristics and microclimate but not tree diversity. Two thirds of plot-specific litter mixtures showed a positive non-additive mixture effect whose strength was marginally positively influenced by litter species richness.


Tree diversity at stand level does not directly influence decomposition of a common litter substrate. However, our results suggest that tree species richness in the litter layer can indirectly promote decomposition and nutrient cycling via positive non-additive mixture effects.


BEF-China Forest biodiversity Non-additive mixture effects Nitrogen Secondary forest succession Subtropical broad-leaved forest 



We wish to record our gratitude to the staff of the Gutianshan National Nature Reserve, especially to Fang Teng, for the received support. We thank the members of the BEF- China project for help in plot establishment, and Andreas Kundela and Katherina Pietsch for sharing LAI and microclimate data. Nina Buchmann (Grassland Sciences group, ETH Zurich) provided helpful comments on a previous version of the manuscript. This study was funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG FOR 891/1).

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Supplementary material

11104_2015_2737_MOESM1_ESM.docx (711 kb)
ESM 1 (DOCX 710 kb)


  1. Aerts R (1997) Climate, leaf litter chemistry and leaf litter decomposition in terrestrial ecosystems: a triangular relationship. Oikos 79:439–449CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Aneja MK, Sharma S, Fleischmann F, Stich S, Heller W, Bahnweg G, Munch JC, Schloter M (2006) Microbial colonization of beech and spruce litter—influence of decomposition site and plant litter species on the diversity of microbial community. Microb Ecol 52:127–135CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  3. Ayres E, Steltzer H, Simmons BL, Simpson RT, Steinweg JM, Wallenstein MD, Mellor N, Parton WJ, Moore JC, Wall DH (2009) Home-field advantage accelerates leaf litter decomposition in forests. Soil Biol Biochem 41:606–610CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Balvanera P, Pfisterer AB, Buchmann N, He J, Nakashizuka T, Raffaelli D, Schmid B (2006) Quantifying the evidence for biodiversity effects on ecosystem functioning and services. Ecol Lett 9:1146–1156CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  5. Barantal S, Roy J, Fromin N, Schimann H, Hättenschwiler S (2011) Long-term presence of tree species but not chemical diversity affect litter mixture effects on decomposition in a neotropical rainforest. Oecologia 167:241–252CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  6. Baruffol M, Schmid B, Bruelheide H, Chi X, Hector A, Ma K, Michalski S, Tang Z, Niklaus PA (2013) Biodiversity promotes tree growth during succession in subtropical forest. PLoS ONE 8:e81246CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Berg B, Laskowski R (2005) Nitrogen dynamics in decomposing litter. Adv Ecol Res 38:157–183CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Berg B, McClaugherty C (2008) Plant litter. Decomposition, humus formation, carbon sequestration, 2nd edn. Springer, BerlinGoogle Scholar
  9. Blair JM, Parmelee RW, Beare MH (1990) Decay rates, nitrogen fluxes, and decomposer communiies of single- and mixed-species foliar litter. Ecology 71:1976–1985CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Bocock KL, Gilbert OJW (1957) The disappearance of leaf litter under different woodland conditions. Plant Soil 9:179–185CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Bonanomi G, Capodilupo M, Incerti G, Mazzoleni S (2014) Nitrogen transfer in litter mixture enhances decomposition rate, temperature sensitivity, and C quality changes. Plant Soil 381:307–321CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Bruelheide H, Böhnke M, Both S, Fang T, Assmann T, Baruffol M, Bauhus J, Buscot F, Chen X, Ding B, Durka W, Erfmeier A, Fischer M, Geißler C, Guo D, Guo L, Härdtle W, He J, Hector A, Kröber W, Kühn P, Lang AC, Nadrowski K, Pei K, Scherer-Lorenzen M, Shi X, Scholten T, Schuldt A, Trogisch S, von Oheimb G, Welk E, Wirth C, Wu Y, Yang X, Zeng X, Zhang S, Zhou H, Ma K, Schmid B (2011) Community assembly during secondary forest succession in a Chinese subtropical forest. Ecol Monogr 81:25–41CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Butenschoen O, Krashevska V, Maraun M, Marian F, Sandmann D, Scheu S (2014) Litter mixture effects on decomposition in tropical montane rainforests vary strongly with time and turn negative at later stages of decay. Soil Biol Biochem 77:121–128CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Carrascal LM, Galván I, Gordo O (2009) Partial least squares regression as an alternative to current regression methods used in ecology. Oikos 118:681–690CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Chadwick DR, Ineson P, Woods C, Piearce TG (1998) Decomposition of Pinus sylvestris litter in litter bags: influence of underlying native litter layer. Soil Biol Biochem 30:47–55CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Chapman SK, Newman GS, Hart SC, Schweitzer JA, Koch GW, Smidt H (2013) Leaf litter mixtures alter microbial community development: mechanisms for non-additive effects in litter decomposition. PLoS ONE 8:e62671PubMedCentralCrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  17. Chen J, Saunders SC, Crow TR, Naiman RJ, Brosofske KD, Mroz GD, Brookshire BL, Franklin JF (1999) Microclimate in forest ecosystem and landscape ecology: variations in local climate can be used to monitor and compare the effects of different management regimes. Bioscience 49:288–297CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Cong W, van Ruijven J, van der Werf W, De Deyn GB, Mommer L, Berendse F, Hoffland E (2015) Plant species richness leaves a legacy of enhanced root litter-induced decomposition in soil. Soil Biol Biochem 80:341–348CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Coûteaux MM, Bottner P, Berg B (1995) Litter decomposition, climate and litter quality. Trends Ecol Evol 10:63–66CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  20. Dale SE, Turner BL, Bardgett RD (2015) Isolating the effects of precipitation, soil conditions, and litter quality on leaf litter decomposition in lowland tropical forests. Plant Soil. doi: 10.1007/s11104-015-2511-8 Google Scholar
  21. De Deyn GB, van der Putten WH (2005) Linking aboveground and belowground diversity. Trends Ecol Evol 20:625–633CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  22. Eichenberg D, Trogisch S, Huang Y, He J, Bruelheide H (2014) Shifts in community leaf functional traits are related to litter decomposition along a secondary forest succession series in subtropical China. J Plant Ecol. doi: 10.1093/jpe/rtu021 Google Scholar
  23. Falconer JG, Wright JW, Beall HW (1933) The decomposition of certain types of forest litter under field conditions. Am J Bot 20:196–203CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Fang H, Mo J, Peng S, Li Z, Wang H (2007) Cumulative effects of nitrogen additions on litter decomposition in three tropical forests in southern China. Plant Soil 297:233–242CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Gartner TB, Cardon ZG (2004) Decomposition dynamics in mixed-species leaf litter. Oikos 104:230–246CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Gessner MO, Swan CM, Dang CK, McKie BG, Bardgett RD, Wall DH, Hättenschwiler S (2010) Diversity meets decomposition. Trends Ecol Evol 25:372–380CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  27. Guo P, Jiang H, Yu S, Ma Y, Dou R, Song X (2009) Comparison of litter decomposition of six species of coniferous and broad-leaved trees in subtropical China. Chin J Apppl Environ Biol 15:655–659 [In Chinese]Google Scholar
  28. Gustafson FG (1943) Decomposition of the leaves of some forest trees under field conditions. Plant Physiol 18:704–707PubMedCentralCrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  29. Handa IT, Aerts R, Berendse F, Berg MP, Bruder A, Butenschoen O, Chauvet E, Gessner MO, Jabiol J, Makkonen M, McKie BG, Malmqvist B, Peeters ETHM, Scheu S, Schmid B, van Ruijven J, Vos VCA, Hättenschwiler S (2014) Consequences of biodiversity loss for litter decomposition across biomes. Nature 509:218–221CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  30. Hättenschwiler S, Tiunov AV, Scheu S (2005) Biodiversity and litter decomposition in terrestrial ecosystems. Annu Rev Ecol Evol Syst 36:191–218CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Hector A, Beale AJ, Minns A, Otway SJ, Lawton JH (2000) Consequences of the reduction of plant diversity for litter decomposition: effects through litter quality and microenvironment. Oikos 90:357–371CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Hobbie SE, Reich PB, Oleksyn J, Ogdahl M, Zytkowiak R, Hale C, Karolewski P (2006) Tree species effects on decomposition and forest floor dynamics in a common garden. Ecology 87:2288–2297CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  33. Hu Z, Yu M (2008) Study on successions sequence of evergreen broad-leaved forest in Gutian Mountain of Zhejiang, Eastern China: species diversity. Front Biol China 3:45–49CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Inagaki Y, Miura S, Kohzu A (2004) Effects of forest type and stand age on litterfall quality and soil N dynamics in Shikoku district, southern Japan. For Ecol Manag 202:107–117CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Knops JMH, Wedin D, Tilman D (2001) Biodiversity and decomposition in experimental grassland ecosystems. Oecologia 126:429–433CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Knorr M, Frey SD, Curtis PS (2005) Nitrogen additions and litter decomposition: a meta-analysis. Ecology 86:3252–3257CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Lang AC, Härdtle W, Bruelheide H, Geißler C, Nadrowski K, Schuldt A, Yu M, von Oheimb G (2010) Tree morphology responds to neighbourhood competition and slope in species-rich forests of subtropical China. For Ecol Manag 260:1708–1715CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Lebrija-Trejos E, Pérez-García EA, Meave JA, Poorter L, Bongers F (2011) Environmental changes during secondary succession in a tropical dry forest in Mexico. J Trop Ecol 27:477–489CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Legendre P, Mi X, Ren H, Ma K, Yu M, Sun I, He F (2009) Partitioning beta diversity in a subtropical broad-leaved forest of China. Ecology 90:663–674CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  40. Lin G, Mao R, Zhao L, Zeng D (2013) Litter decomposition of a pine plantation is affected by species evenness and soil nitrogen availability. Plant Soil 373:649–657CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Liu Q, Peng SL, Bi H, Zang HY, Li ZA, Ma WH, Li NY (2005) Decomposition of leaf litter in tropical and subtropical forests of Southern China. J Trop For Sci 17:543–556Google Scholar
  42. Lohbeck M, Poorter L, Martínez-Ramos M, Bongers F (2014) Biomass is the main driver of changes in ecosystem process rates during tropical forest succession. Ecology 96:1242–1252CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Loreau M, Hector A (2001) Partitioning selection and complementarity in biodiversity experiments. Nature 412:72–76CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  44. Lou L, Jin S (2000) Spermatophyta flora of Gutianshan Nature Reserve in Zhejiang. J Beijing For Univ 22:33–39 [In Chinese]Google Scholar
  45. Lummer D, Scheu S, Butenschoen O (2012) Connecting litter quality, microbial community and nitrogen transfer mechanisms in decomposing litter mixtures. Oikos 121:1649–1655CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Makkonen M, Berg MP, Handa IT, Hättenschwiler S, van Ruijven J, van Bodegom PM, Aerts R (2012) Highly consistent effects of plant litter identity and functional traits on decomposition across a latitudinal gradient. Ecol Lett 15:1033–1041CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  47. McNaughton SJ, Oesterheld M, Frank DA, Williams KJ (1989) Ecosystem-level patterns of primary productivity and herbivory in terrestrial habitats. Nature 341:142–144CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  48. Melillo JM, Aber JD, Muratore JF (1982) Nitrogen and lignin control of hardwood leaf litter decomposition dynamics. Ecology 63:621–626CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Parton W, Silver WL, Burke IC, Grassens L, Harmon ME, Currie WS, King JY, Adair EC, Brandt LA, Hart SC, Fasth B (2007) Global-scale similarities in nitrogen release patterns during long-term decomposition. Science 315:361–364CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  50. Prescott CE (1995) Does nitrogen availability control rates of litter decomposition in forests? Plant Soil 168–169:83–88CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Prescott CE (2002) The influence of the forest canopy on nutrient cycling. Tree Physiol 22:1193–1200CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  52. R Core Team (2015) R: a language and environment for statistical computing. R Foundation for Statistical Computing, Vienna, Austria.
  53. Sanchez G (2012) plsdepot: Partial least squares (PLS) data analysis methods. R package version 0.1.17.
  54. Scherer-Lorenzen M (2008) Functional diversity affects decomposition processes in experimental grasslands. Funct Ecol 22:547–555CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Schimel JP, Hättenschwiler S (2007) Nitrogen transfer between decomposing leaves of different N status. Soil Biol Biochem 39:1428–1436CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Schleppi P, Conedera M, Sedivy I, Thimonier A (2007) Correcting non-linearity and slope effects in the estimation of the leaf area index of forests from hemispherical photographs. Agric For Meteorol 144:236–242CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Schuldt A, Both S, Bruelheide H, Härdtle W, Schmid B, Zhou H, Assmann T (2011) Predator diversity and abundance provide little support for the enemies hypothesis in forests of high tree diversity. PLoS ONE 6:e22905PubMedCentralCrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  58. Shen H, Wang X, Jiang Y, You W (2012) Spatial variations of throughfall through secondary succession of evergreen broad-leaved forests in eastern China. Hydrol Process 26:1739–1747CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Solan M, Godbold JA, Symstad A, Flynn DFB, Bunker DE (2009) Biodiversity-ecosystem function research and biodiversity futures: early bird catches the worm or a day late and a dollar short? In: Naeem S, Bunker DE, Hector A, Loreau M, Perrings C (eds) Biodiversity, ecosystem functioning, and human wellbeing. An ecological and economic perspective. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 30–45CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Spehn E, Joshi J, Schmid B, Alphei J, Körner C (2000) Plant diversity effects on soil heterotrophic activity in experimental grassland ecosystems. Plant Soil 224:217–230CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Srivastava DS, Cardinale BJ, Downing AL, Duffy JE, Jouseau C, Sankaran M, Wright JP (2009) Diversity has stronger top-down than bottom-up effects on decomposition. Ecology 90:1073–1083CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  62. Swift MJ, Heal OW, Anderson JM (1979) Decomposition in terrestrial ecosystems. University of California Press, BerkeleyGoogle Scholar
  63. Taylor BR, Parkinson D, Parsons WFJ (1989) Nitrogen and lignin content as predictors of litter decay rates: a microcosm test. Ecology 70:97–104CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Trap J, Bureau F, Vinceslas-Akpa M, Chevalier R, Aubert M (2009) Changes in soil N mineralization and nitrification pathways along a mixed forest chronosequence. For Ecol Manag 258:1284–1292CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Vitousek PM (1984) Litterfall, nutrient cycling, and nutrient limitation in tropical forests. Ecology 65:285–298CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Vitousek PM, Turner DR, Parton WJ, Sanford RL (1994) Litter decomposition on the Mauna Loa environmental matrix, Hawai’i: patterns, mechanisms, and models. Ecology 75:418–429CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Vogel A, Eisenhauer N, Weigelt A, Scherer-Lorenzen M (2013) Plant diversity does not buffer drought effects on early-stage litter mass loss rates and microbial properties. Glob Chang Biol 19:2795–2803CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  68. Wang Q, Wang S, Fan B, Yu X (2007a) Litter production, leaf litter decomposition and nutrient return in Cunninghamia lanceolata plantations in south China: effect of planting conifers with broadleaved species. Plant Soil 297:201–211CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Wang X, Kent M, Fang X (2007b) Evergreen broad-leaved forest in Eastern China: its ecology and conservation and the importance of resprouting in forest restoration. For Ecol Manag 245:76–87CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Wang Q, Wang S, Huang Y (2009) Leaf litter decomposition in the pure and mixed plantations of Cunninghamia lanceolata and Michelia macclurei in subtropical China. Biol Fertil Soils 45:371–377CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Wang S, Ruan H, Han Y (2010) Effects of microclimate, litter type, and mesh size on leaf litter decomposition along an elevation gradient in the Wuyi Mountains, China. Ecol Res 25:1113–1120CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Wardle DA, Bonner KI, Nicholson KS (1997) Biodiversity and plant litter: experimental evidence which does not support the view that enhanced species richness improves ecosystem function. Oikos 79:247–258CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Xu X, Hirata E (2005) Decomposition patterns of leaf litter of seven common canopy species in a subtropical forest: N and P dynamics. Plant Soil 273:279–289CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Zhang P, Tian X, He X, Song F, Ren L, Jiang P (2008) Effect of litter quality on its decomposition in broadleaf and coniferous forest. Eur J Soil Biol 44:392–399CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Stefan Trogisch
    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
    • 6
    Email author
  • Jin-Sheng He
    • 4
  • Andy Hector
    • 5
  • Michael Scherer-Lorenzen
    • 6
  1. 1.Institute of Biology, Geobotany and Botanical GardenMartin Luther University Halle WittenbergHalleGermany
  2. 2.German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena-LeipzigLeipzigGermany
  3. 3.Institute of Agricultural SciencesETH ZurichZurichSwitzerland
  4. 4.Department of Ecology, College of Urban and Environmental Sciences and Key Laboratory for Earth Surface Processes of the Ministry of EducationPeking UniversityBeijingChina
  5. 5.Department of Plant SciencesUniversity of OxfordOxfordUK
  6. 6.Faculty of Biology, GeobotanyUniversity of FreiburgFreiburgGermany

Personalised recommendations