Linkages between plant litter decomposition, litter quality, and vegetation responses to herbivores


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  • 1There is increasing awareness that similar suites of plant traits may govern foliage palatability and litter decomposability, but whether there is an association between the response of vegetation to herbivory and litter decomposition rates across plant species remains unexplored.
  • 2We collected 141 samples of litter from 59 understorey and 18 canopy tree species from a total of 28 sites under natural forest throughout New Zealand. We assessed whether variables related to decomposition and quality of litter of the understorey species showed a statistical relationship with the response of vegetation density (assessed using a pole-intercept method) of the same species at the same locations to browsing by deer and goats. Decomposition and nutrient-loss data from litter were obtained using standardized laboratory bioassays.
  • 3There was a significant positive correlation between litter decomposition rate and the extent to which vegetation density was reduced by browsing mammals (r = 0·488, P < 0·001). Further, decomposition rate and vegetation response to herbivory were both correlated with several of the same litter quality variables.
  • 4The proportion of total initial phosphorus and nitrogen released from litter during decomposition was correlated with litter decomposition rate, but not with vegetation density response to browsing. This suggests that effects of browsers on vegetation composition are more likely to influence ecosystem carbon flow than nitrogen or phosphorus flow.
  • 5Litter-mixing experiments showed that good quality litters produced by plant species reduced by browsers tended to promote the decomposition of other litters. Meanwhile, poor quality litters from species promoted by browsers tended to decompose more rapidly when mixed with other litter types than when by themselves. However, these effects were weak and likely to be less important than the more direct effects of browsing mammals on vegetation composition.
  • 6The relationships between litter decomposition and effect of herbivory on vegetation density were driven primarily by differences among the main plant functional groups, which showed the same decreasing rank order for both variables: large-leaved dicots, small-leaved dicots, Nothofagus, ferns, and monocots.
  • 7The implications of these results for understanding how herbivores affect the decomposer subsystem are considered. Because the results of this work are only partially consistent with those of an earlier study on how browsers affect decomposer organisms and processes, conducted at the same 28 field sites, other mechanisms through which browser effects are manifested below-ground must often override that investigated in this study.