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Mycorrhizal type effects on leaf litter decomposition depend on litter quality and environmental context

Abstract

Slower leaf litter decomposition rates for trees associated with ectomycorrhizal (ECM) fungi compared to arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi may lead to the development of conservative nitrogen cycling and accumulation of soil organic matter in surface soils of ECM-dominated forests. Slower decomposition is hypothesized to occur via two often-confounded mechanisms: production of lower quality litter by ECM-associated trees compared to AM-associated trees and competition for nitrogen between ECM and saprotrophic decomposers in ECM-dominated stands. To disentangle the effects of litter quality and stand mycorrhizal type on decomposition, we measured litter mass loss rates of two AM species higher and two AM species similar in chemical quality to two ECM species. Leaf litter was decomposed for two years in neighboring ECM- and AM-dominated stands of a wet tropical montane forest. Litter phosphorus (P) was the strongest predictor of decomposition rates across all species, with no effect of litter mycorrhizal type on decomposition rates. Only one species, which exhibited intermediate litter chemical quality and decomposition rate, decomposed significantly faster in AM- compared to ECM-dominated stands. Leaf litter decomposition rates cannot be predicted directly from litter mycorrhizal type or stand mycorrhizal type because litter chemical quality and environmental conditions mediate the manifestation of slower decomposition in ECM stands.

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Data availability

Data are available upon request from the corresponding author.

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Acknowledgements

We appreciate field assistance from Evidelio Garcia and Carlos Espinosa, and lab assistance from Rachel Van Allen and Helen Fisher. This research was funded by the Clark Research Award, Ferguson Fund, and the University of Illinois Graduate College Dissertation Travel Grant to GSS. The National Science Foundation Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship Program (NSF IGERT 1069157) and the Illinois Distinguished Fellowship supported GSS. The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute provided logistical support at the Fortuna Forest Reserve.

Funding

This research was funded by the Clark Research Award, Ferguson Fund, and the University of Illinois Graduate College Dissertation Travel Grant to GSS. The National Science Foundation Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship Program (NSF IGERT 1069157) and the Illinois Distinguished Fellowship supported GSS. The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute provided logistical support at the Fortuna Forest Reserve.

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GSS and WHY conceived of and designed the study in consultation with JD; GSS conducted the study, processed the samples, analyzed the data, and wrote the manuscript; WHY edited the manuscript with contributions from JD.

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Correspondence to Georgia S. Seyfried.

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Seyfried, G.S., Dalling, J.W. & Yang, W.H. Mycorrhizal type effects on leaf litter decomposition depend on litter quality and environmental context. Biogeochemistry 155, 21–38 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10533-021-00810-x

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Keywords

  • Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi
  • Ectomycorrhizal fungi
  • Litter decomposition
  • Litter chemistry
  • Mass loss
  • Tropical forest