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Temporal shifts in the relative importance of climate and leaf litter traits in driving litter decomposition dynamics in a Chinese transitional mixed forest

Abstract

Purpose

To assess the direction and strength of climate and leaf litter trait effects on decomposition dynamics throughout the litter decomposition process.

Methods

We performed a three-year-long litterbag translocation experiment along an elevational gradient in a transitional mixed forest in China. We explored temporal shifts in the relative contribution of microclimate and litter traits of seven dominant species to mass loss throughout the decomposition process.

Results

Air temperature and soil moisture imparted no significant effects on mass loss in the initial decomposition stage (0–6 months) but exerted positive effects after 6 months’ incubation (p < 0.05). Initial specific leaf area (SLA) was positively associated with mass loss only during the early decomposition stages (0–12 months). Litter P concentration was positively while N concentration was negatively associated with mass loss for almost all decomposition stages. Both litter Mg and Ca concentrations were negatively associated with mass loss throughout the whole decomposition process (p < 0.05). The relative contribution of microclimate was weaker than that of litter traits during the early stages but increased in the late decomposition stage (after 36 months). SLA and Mg were the most important traits during the early stages (0-12 months), whereas N and Mg were relatively stronger during the later stages (30–36 months).

Conclusion

Our results have highlighted that microclimate (particularly temperature) exerted dominant control over later-stage litter decomposition. Often-overlooked litter traits such as Mg, are key potential drivers of litter decomposition dynamics and should be more explicitly incorporated into current biogeochemical models to better understand litter-driven nutrient and carbon cycling.

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Data availability

The datasets analyzed during the current study are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.

Code availability

The code analyzed during the current study are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.

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Acknowledgements

We wish to acknowledge all participants for their contributions to the fieldwork and laboratory analysis in this study. We would like to thank Professor Björn Berg at the University of Helsinki for his insightful comments on this manuscript. We also would like to thank Dr. Morgan Furze at Yale University and Dr. Shannon Elliot at Michigan State University for their assistance with the English language and grammatical editing. The National Key Research and Development Program of China (Grant No. 2019YFD1100403), The National Natural Science Foundation of China (Grant No.31600360), and The State Key Laboratory of Vegetation and Environmental Change of China (Grant No. Y7206F1016) financed this study.

Funding

Both the National Key Research and Development Program of China (Grant No. 2019YFD1100403) and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (Grant No.31600360) financed this study.

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J.G. and Z.X. conceived of and designed study, performed research, and wrote the manuscript. J.G., B.M., B.B., W.X., and C.Z analyzed data and revised this manuscript. All the authors approved the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Zongqiang Xie.

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Ge, J., Ma, B., Xu, W. et al. Temporal shifts in the relative importance of climate and leaf litter traits in driving litter decomposition dynamics in a Chinese transitional mixed forest. Plant Soil (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11104-022-05425-1

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Keywords

  • Mass loss
  • Elevation gradient
  • Microclimate
  • Nutrient cycling
  • Transitional mixed forest