, Volume 18, Issue 7, pp 1269–1280 | Cite as

Environmental Filtering and Positive Plant Litter Feedback Simultaneously Explain Correlations Between Leaf Traits and Soil Fertility

  • Daniel C. LaughlinEmail author
  • Sarah J. Richardson
  • Elaine F. Wright
  • Peter J. Bellingham


Plant traits covary with soil fertility, but determining whether this is the outcome of environmental filtering or plant feedback is not straightforward, especially in long-lived plant communities such as rain forests. Without explicitly accounting for the potential of plant litter to influence soil properties, it is difficult to interpret with confidence that covariation between soil nutrients and plant traits is the outcome of environmental filtering. We estimated abundance-weighted mean leaf dry matter content (LDMC), senesced leaf litter nitrogen resorption proficiency (litter N %), wood tissue density, and multiple metrics of soil fertility (pH, C:N ratio, and organic P concentrations) on 241 temperate rain forest plots throughout New Zealand. A non-recursive structural equation model indicated that environmental filtering and plant litter feedback were equally important reciprocal processes that explain covariation between leaf traits and soil fertility. Plant communities with high resorption proficiency, high LDMC, and high stem tissue density were strongly associated with low-fertility soils. Both structural (LDMC) and chemical (litter N %) leaf traits influenced soil fertility, but stem tissue density did not exhibit feedback effects. Here, we show that it is not a matter of ‘either–or’ when determining the relative importance of environmental filtering and plant feedback, but rather that both processes are equally important and occur simultaneously in temperate forest ecosystems. Although both leaf and wood traits were filtered by soil fertility, only leaf traits exhibited significant feedback effects on soil fertility.


leaf economic spectrum non-recursive model structural equation modeling plant–soil feedback nitrogen wood density 



This research was supported by a Grant (UOW1201) from the Royal Society of New Zealand Marsden Fund and Core funding for Crown Research Institutes from New Zealand’s Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s Science and Innovation Group. This research uses publically available data of forest composition on permanent forest plots and we acknowledge the use of data drawn from the Natural Forest plot data collected between January 2002 and March 2007 by the LUCAS programme for the Ministry for the Environment. We thank Meredith McKay and others in the Department of Conservation for their contributions to data collection and management, and we thank the two anonymous reviewers, Peter Vitousek and Louis Schipper for their constructive comments and feedback. Data are available from the National Vegetation Survey databank (

Supplementary material

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Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 152 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Daniel C. Laughlin
    • 1
    Email author
  • Sarah J. Richardson
    • 2
  • Elaine F. Wright
    • 3
  • Peter J. Bellingham
    • 2
  1. 1.Environmental Research Institute and School of ScienceUniversity of WaikatoHamiltonNew Zealand
  2. 2.Landcare ResearchLincolnNew Zealand
  3. 3.Department of ConservationChristchurchNew Zealand

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