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Effects of Calcium on the Rate and Extent of Litter Decomposition in a Northern Hardwood Forest


Cross-site syntheses of litter decomposition studies have shown that litter calcium (Ca) concentration may have a role in controlling the extent of decomposition of tree foliage. We used an ongoing watershed CaSiO3 addition experiment at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire, USA, to test the hypotheses that increased Ca in litter would have no effect on the initial rates of litter decay but would increase the extent or completeness (limit value) of foliar litter decomposition. We tested these hypotheses with a 6-year litter decomposition experiment using foliar litter of four tree species that are prominent at this site and in the Northern Hardwood forest type of North America: sugar maple (Acer saccharum Marsh), American beech (Fagus grandifolia Ehrh.), yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis Britt.), and white ash (Fraxinus americana L.). The experiment used a reciprocal transplant design with the Ca-treated watershed and a control site providing two sources of litter and two placement sites. The litter from the Ca-treated site was 10–92% higher in Ca concentration, depending on species, than the litter from the control site. After about 3 years of decomposition, the Ca concentrations in the litter reflected the placement of the litter (that is, the site in which it was incubated) rather than the source of the litter. The source of the litter had no significant effect on measures of initial decomposition rate, cumulative mass loss (6 years), or limit value. However, the placement of the litter had a highly significant effect on extent of decomposition. Some litter types responded more than others; in particular, beech litter placed in the Ca-treated site had a significantly higher limit value, indicating more complete decomposition, and maple litter in the Ca-treated site had a marginally higher limit value. These results indicate that Ca may influence the extent of litter decomposition, but it is the Ca at the incubation site rather than the initial litter Ca that matters most. The results also suggest that loss of Ca from the soil due to decades of acid deposition at this site may have impeded late-stage litter decomposition, possibly leading to greater soil C storage, especially in forest stands with a substantial component of beech. Likewise, de-acidification may lead to a reduction in soil C.

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We thank Jake Griffin, Brent Mellen, Millie Hamilton, Jordan Jessop, and Maggie Ward for help in the field and in the laboratory. We are grateful to Charles Driscoll and other members of the Watershed 1 experiment team at Hubbard Brook who initiated and maintained the wollastonite addition experiment, making our study possible. We thank Chris Johnson and two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on the manuscript. This research was funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation (Award DEB044895 and Hubbard Brook LTER program award DEB1114804) and the USDA Northeastern States Research Cooperative.

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Correspondence to Gary M. Lovett.

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Lovett and Arthur conceived and carried out the study and contributed to analysis of the data and preparation of the paper. Crowley contributed to data analysis and manuscript preparation.

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Lovett, G.M., Arthur, M.A. & Crowley, K.F. Effects of Calcium on the Rate and Extent of Litter Decomposition in a Northern Hardwood Forest. Ecosystems 19, 87–97 (2016).

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  • decomposition
  • litter
  • calcium
  • sugar maple
  • American beech
  • white ash
  • yellow birch