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Do non-additive effects on decomposition in litter-mix experiments result from differences in resource quality between litters?


  • Victoria C. Smith,

  • Mark A. Bradford

V. C. Smith and M. A. Bradford, NERC Centre for Population Biology, Dept of Biological Sci., Imperial College at Silwood Park, Ascot, Berkshire, SL5 7PY, UK. Present address for VCS: School of Biological Sciences, Stopford Building, Univ. of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester, M13 9PT, UK. Present address for MAB: Dept of Biology, Duke Univ., Durham, NC 27708, USA (


Differences in resource quality between litter species have been postulated to explain why litter-mixtures may decompose at a different rate to that which would be predicted from single species litters (termed ‘non-additive effects’). In particular, positive, non-additive effects of litter-mixing on decomposition have been explained by differences in initial nitrogen concentration between litter species. This interpretation is confounded because litter species that differ in nitrogen content also differ by a number of other resource quality attributes. Thus, to investigate whether initial nitrogen concentration does account for positive, non-additive effects of litter-mixing, we mixed grass litters that differed in initial nitrogen concentration but not species or structural plant part identity, and then followed mass loss from the litter-mixes over time. We used the litterbag technique and three grass species for which a gradient of four distinct initial nitrogen concentrations had been generated. We produced all no- to four-mix compositions of litter qualities for each species. Litter from different species was never mixed.

Contrary to what would be predicted, we found that when litters of the same species but with different initial nitrogen concentrations were mixed, that negative, non-additive effects on decomposition were generally observed. In addition, we found that once mixed, increasing litter quality richness from two to four mixtures had no significant, non-additive effect on decomposition. Litter quality composition explained little of the experimental variation when compared to litter quality richness, and different compositions generally behaved in the same manner. Our findings challenge the commonly held assumption that differences in nitrogen concentration between plant species are responsible for positive, non-additive effects of litter-mixing on decomposition.