The Effect of Water on Decomposition Dynamics in Mesic to Wet Hawaiian Montane Forests
I used a mesic to wet precipitation gradient on Maui, Hawaii, to test whether variation in rainfall regulates decomposition in tropical wet forest. Decomposition rates of leaves and roots from the dominant tree species, Metrosideros polymorpha, were measured at six sites similar in temperature regime, parent material, ecosystem age, vegetation, and topographical relief, whereas mean annual precipitation (MAP) at these six sites varied from 2200 to over 5000 mm/y. In situ decomposition rates of leaves placed on the soil surface declined by a factor of 6.4 with increased precipitation, whereas the decomposition rate of roots placed below ground declined by a factor of 2.3 across the gradient. Leaves collected from the 2200-mm site and placed at all sites on the gradient decomposed faster on the soil surface than they did below ground, whereas both above- and belowground decomposition rates of the common leaves decreased by a factor of 2.5 with increased precipitation. Of the environmental variables that changed with MAP, soil oxygen availability appeared to be the proximal factor that limited decomposition rates across the gradient, both above and below ground. When plant tissue collected from all sites across the gradient was decomposed at a common site, leaves from the wettest sites decomposed almost three times more slowly than leaves from the mesic sites. In contrast, roots from across the gradient all decomposed at a similar rate in a common site. Of tissue chemistry variables, high lignin concentration was correlated consistently with slow decomposition for roots and leaves. These results suggest that soil oxygen limitation combined with poorly decomposable leaves caused slower rates of decomposition and nutrient release with increased rainfall in these upland forests.
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