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A Cross-System Analysis of Litter Chemical Dynamics Throughout Decomposition

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Abstract

Decomposition of plant litter is a fundamental ecological process, integral to soil formation, soil organic matter chemistry, and biogeochemical cycling. However, much of our understanding of decay dynamics focuses on rates of litter mass loss and therefore carbon dynamics, with relatively less exploration of the chemical nature of litter decomposition during which the degradation of litter structural and metabolic compounds into fragments are either metabolized or ultimately incorporated into soil humus. Our understanding of the patterns of changes in litter chemistry throughout decomposition is incomplete, as few studies have measured chemical content beyond initial litter chemistry and throughout decay, and particularly not chemistry beyond carbon and nitrogen. The existing literature also reports idiosyncratic instances of litter chemical convergence and divergence. We used archived litter decomposition samples and data from across the U.S. Long-Term Ecological Research Network to investigate the trajectory of a comprehensive array of litter chemistry, including nutrient, structural, and metabolic parameters, across a wide variety of plant functional types and ecosystems, throughout the first 70% of mass loss. Our results do not yield a universally common pattern of litter chemical trajectories across all functional types and regions, and very limited evidence of convergence or divergence in chemistry over time, mostly within the nutrient elements. We provide details about the behavior of individual chemical parameters to functional type and region over decay. Changes in plant communities driven by global change may alter nutrient cycling and SOM formation through persistence or divergence on litter chemistry inputs.

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Acknowledgements

The ideas presented in this paper are from the discussions during a working group of the LTER ASM, and we thank working group members Jennie DeMarco, Grizelle González, D. Jean Lodge, and Marshall McDaniel for their contributions. This work would not have been possible without the support of Dr. Henry Gholz. Students Katelyn Berry, Paul Cattelino, Stephen Peters-Collaer, Patrick Susman, and Miranda Vega provided invaluable help with the laboratory analyses. Scott Greenwood and Stuart Grandy, University of New Hampshire, provided py-GCMS analyses. Cathy Kochert, Roy Erickson, and Sara Ryan at the Goldwater Environmental Lab at ASU provided analytical services. Denise Schmidt at Cary institute assisted with CN analysis.

Funding

This research was supported by National Science Foundation’s Division of Environmental Biology grants to PIs Ball (NSF DEB-1537920), Christenson (NSF DEB-1537754), and Wickings (NSF DEB-1537990).

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Correspondence to Becky A. Ball.

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Author Contributions BB, LC, KW conceived and designed the study, and performed the sample analysis. BB led the data analysis and authorship of the paper, and LC and KW provided substantial input and feedback.

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Ball, B.A., Christenson, L.M. & Wickings, K.G. A Cross-System Analysis of Litter Chemical Dynamics Throughout Decomposition. Ecosystems 25, 1792–1808 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10021-022-00749-6

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