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.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Aerts R (1997) Climate, leaf litter chemistry and leaf litter decomposition in terrestrial ecosystems: a triangular relationship. Oikos 79:439–449
Albers D, Migge S, Schaefer M, Scheu S (2004) Decomposition of beech leaves (Fagus sylvatica) and spruce needles (Picea abies) in pure and mixed stands of beech and spruce. Soil Biol Biochem 36:155–164
Arkhipov NP, Kuchma ND, Askbrant S, Pasternak PS, Musica VV (1994) Acute and long-term effects of irradiation on pine (Pinus silvestris) stands post-Chernobyl. Sci Total Environ 157:383–386
Attiwill PM, Adams MA (1993) Nutrient cycling in forests. New Phytol 124:561–582
Berg B, Ekbohm G (1991) Litter mass-loss rates and decomposition patterns in some needle and leaf litter types: long-term decomposition in a Scots pine forest. Can J Bot 69:1449–1456
Berg B, Berg MP, Bottner P, Box E, Breymeyer A, Calvo de Anta R, Coueaux M, Escudero A, Gallardo A, Kratz W, Madeira M, Mälkönen E, McClaugherty C, Meentemeyer V, Muñoz F, Piussi P, Remacle J, Virzo de Santo A (1993) Litter mass loss rates in pine forests of Europe and Eastern United States: some relationships with climate and litter quality. Biogeochemistry 20:127–159
Brown GG (1995) How do earthworms affect microfloral and faunal community diversity? Plant Soil 170:209–231
Cornelissen JHC, Perez-Harguindeguy N, Diaz S, Grime JP, Marzano B, Cabido M, Vendramini F, Cerabolini B (1999) Leaf structure and defence control litter decomposition rate across species and life forms in regional floras on two continents. New Phytol 143:191–200
Gartner TB, Cardon ZG (2004) Decomposition dynamics in mixed-species leaf litter. Oikos 104:230–246
Gillon D, Joffre R, Ibrahima A (1994) Initial litter properties and decay rate: a microcosm experiment on Mediterranean species. Can J Bot 72:946–954
Gonzalez G, Seastedt TR (2001) Soil fauna and plant litter decomposition in tropical and subtropical forests. Ecology 82:955–964
Howard PJA, Howard DM (1974) Microbial decomposition of three and shrub leaf litter. Oikos 25:341–352
Howard PJA, Howard DM (1980) Effect of species, source of litter, type of soil, and climate on litter decomposition: microbial decomposition of three and shrub leaf litter. Oikos 34:115–124
JMP (2012) JMP version 10.0. SAS Institute, Cary, NC
Kalbitz K, Solinger S, Park JH, Michalzik B, Matzner E (2000) Controls on the dynamics of dissolved organic matter in soils: a review. Soil Sci 165:277–304
Kashparov VA, Lundina SM, Kadygriba AM, Protsaka VP, Levtchuka SE, Yoschenkoa VI, Kashpurb VA, Talerko NM (2000) Forest fires in the territory contaminated as a result of the Chernobyl accident: radioactive aerosol resuspension and exposure of fire-fighters. J Environ Radioact 51:281–298
Krivolutski DA (2000) Problems of sustainable development and ecological indication in radioactively contaminated areas. Russ J Ecol 31:233–237
Krivolutski DA, Pokarzhevsky AD (1992) Effect of radioactive fallout on soil animal populations in the 30 km zone of the Chernobyl NPP. Sci Total Environ 112:69–77
Krivolutski D, Martushov V, Ryabtsev I (1999) Influence of radioactive contamination on fauna in the area of the Chernobyl NPP during first years after the accident (1986–1988). Bioindicators of radioactive contamination. Nauka, Moscow, pp 106–122
Lousier JD, Parkinson D (1976) Litter decomposition in a cool temperate deciduous forest. Can J Bot 54:419–436
Maksimova S (2005) Radiation effects on the populations of soil invertebrates. In: Brechignac F, Desmet G (eds) Equidosimetry. Springer, Berlin, pp 155–161
Møller AP, Mousseau TA (2006) Biological consequences of Chernobyl: 20 years after the disaster. Trends Ecol Evol 21:200–207
Møller AP, Mousseau TA (2007) Species richness and abundance of birds in relation to radiation at Chernobyl. Biol Lett 3:483–486
Mousseau TA, Welch SM, Chizhevsky I, Bondarenko O, Milinevsky G, Tedeschi DJ, Bonisoli-Alquati A, Møller AP (2013) Tree rings reveal extent of exposure to ionizing radiation in Scots pine Pinus sylvestris. Trees 27:1443–1453
Niedree B, Vereecken H, Burauel P (2012) Effects of low-level radioactive soil contamination and sterilization on the degradation of radiolabeled wheat straw. J Environ Radioact 109:29–35
Osono T (2007) Ecology of ligninolytic fungi associated with leaf litter decomposition. Ecol Res 22:955–974
Pigeon RF, Odum HT (eds)(1970) A tropical rain forest; a study of irradiation and ecology at El Verde, Puerto Rico. United States Atomic Energy Commission, National Technical Information Service
Pouyat RV, Parmelee RW, Carreiro MM (1994) Environmental effects of forest soil invertebrates and fungal densities in oak stands along an urban-rural land-use gradient. Pedobiologia 38:385–399
Prescott CE, Zabek LM, Kabzems R (2000) Decomposition of broadleaf and needle litter in forests in British Columbia: influence of litter type, forest type, and litter mixtures. Can J For Res 30:1742–1750
Rafferty B, Dawson D, Kliashtorin A (1997) Decomposition in two pine forests: the mobilisation of 137Cs and K from forest litter. Soil Biol Biochem 29:1673–1681
Ragon M, Restoux G, Moreira D, Møller AP, López-García P (2011) Sunlight-exposed biofilm microbial communities are naturally resistant to Chernobyl ionizing-radiation levels. PLoS One 6(7):e21764
Robinson CH (2002) Controls on decomposition and soil nitrogen availability at high latitudes. Plant Soil 242:65–81
Romanovskaya VA, Sokolov IG, Rokitko PV, Chernaya NA (1998) Ecological consequences of radioactive contamination for soil bacteria in the 10 km Chernobyl zone. Microbiol 67:274–280
Shestopalov VM (1996) Atlas of Chernobyl exclusion zone. Ukrainian Academy of Science, Kiev
Staaf H (1980) Influence of chemical composition, addition of raspberry leaves, and nitrogen supply on decomposition rate and dynamics of nitrogen and phosphorus in beech leaf litter. Oikos 35:55–62
Taylor BR, Parkinson D (1988) Aspen and pine leaf litter decomposition in laboratory microcosms: interactions of temperature and moisture level. Can J Bot 66:1966–1973
van der Heijden MGA, Bardgett RD, van Straalen NM (2008) The unseen majority: soil microbes as drivers of plant diversity and productivity in terrestrial ecosystems. Ecol Lett 11:296–310
Victorov AG (1993) Radio-sensitivity and radio-pathology of earthworms and their use as bio-indication of radioactive territories. Bioindication and radioactive contamination. Nauka, Moscow, pp 213–217
Yoschenko VI, Kashparov VA, Levchuk SE, Glukhovskiy AS, Khomutinin YV, Protsak VP, Lundin SM, Tschiersch J (2006a) Resuspension and redistribution of radionuclides during grassland and forest fires in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Part II. Modeling the transport process. J Environ Radioact 87:260–278
Yoschenko VI, Kashparov VA, Protsak VP, Lundin SM, Levchuk SE, Kadygib AM, Zvarich SI, Khomutinin YV, Maloshtan IM, Lanshin VP, Kovtun MV, Tschiersch J (2006b) Resuspension and redistribution of radionuclides during grassland and forest fires in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Part I. Fire experiments. J Environ Radioact 86:143–163
Zymenko TG, Chernetsova IB, Mokhova SV (1995) Microbiologic complex in radioactively contaminated sod-potboil soils. Her Nat Belarus Acad Sci (Biol) 4:69–72
We are grateful for logistic help during our visits to Ukraine from O. Bondarenko, I. Chizhevsky, A. Erhardt and A. Litvinchuk. We received funding from the University of South Carolina School of the Environment, Bill Murray and the Samuel Freeman Charitable Trust, NATO and the Fulbright Program to conduct our research.
Communicated by Jason P. Kaye.
Electronic supplementary material
Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.
Rights and permissions
About this article
Cite this article
Mousseau, T.A., Milinevsky, G., Kenney-Hunt, J. et al. Highly reduced mass loss rates and increased litter layer in radioactively contaminated areas. Oecologia 175, 429–437 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-014-2908-8
- Background radiation