Ungulates decelerate litter decomposition by altering litter quality above and below ground

Abstract

Ungulates can greatly affect forest ecosystems’ functional characteristics. However, limited information is available about their influence on litter decomposition, a major ecosystem process, despite disturbance of ungulates on vegetation through selective browsing and trampling. This study focused on effects of the presence/absence of deer herbivory on decomposition of leaves and roots of three major tree species in a Hokkaido, Japan forest. Our litterbag experiment showed that litter decomposition was significantly faster for both leaves and roots in a deer exclosure than in a control site with deer herbivory. Possible factors for this slowed decomposition because of deer presence include their physical disturbance on soil through trampling. In both sites, the remaining mass of litter was positively correlated with the C:N ratio and lignin content. When analyzed for leaf litter, species with lower C:N ratio and lignin content showed lower litter mass remaining in both sites. Deer generally prefer species with a low leaf C:N ratio and lignin content; the results suggest that leaves of palatable species were less resistant to decomposition. A similar interspecific difference in decomposition was not observed for roots, most likely resulting from the small difference in root litter quality among species. In this forest, tree species with unpalatable leaves, which are becoming predominant, likely decreases leaf litter decomposition, as leaves of palatable plants decompose more rapidly. Roots, however, are not exposed to browsing, regardless of aboveground palatability, and remain within soil as a recalcitrant slowly decomposing litter substrate. These synergetic influences could allow deer herbivory to reduce overall plant decomposition rates aboveground and belowground via changes in plant species composition.

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Acknowledgments

This study was supported by the Mitsui & Co., Ltd. Environment Fund, the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (Grant No. 23770083), and a Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science Fellowship for Japanese Young Scientists (Grant No. 13J00547). The Shiretoko Foundation provided logistical support for the field study. We thank the students at the Yokohama National University and members of the Shiretoko Forest Biodiversity Evaluation Project for their assistance with the field and laboratory work.

Author contributions

ASM and SF designed the study. All authors collected data. MK analyzed the data and drafted the manuscript with critical inputs from all authors.

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Correspondence to Michiru Kasahara.

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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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Communicated by Dr. Jarmo Holopainen.

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Fig. S1

Changes in the dissimilarity of the plant species composition between the exclosure and control sites from 2003 to 2013. β-diversity was measured as the Bray–Curtis index (DOCX 24 kb)

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Kasahara, M., Fujii, S., Tanikawa, T. et al. Ungulates decelerate litter decomposition by altering litter quality above and below ground. Eur J Forest Res 135, 849–856 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10342-016-0978-3

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Keywords

  • Cervus nippon yesoensis
  • Decomposition
  • Ezo deer
  • Herbivory
  • Leaf and root litter
  • Nutrient cycling