• Hawaii;
  • litter quality;
  • Metrosideros polymorpha;
  • tropical montane rain forest;
  • site fertility;
  • ecosystem development


We examined interactions between temperature, soil development, and decomposition on three elevational gradients, the upper and lower ends of each being situated on a common lava flow or ash deposit. We used the reciprocal transplant technique to estimate decomposition rates of Metrosideros polymorpha leaf litter during a three-year period at warm and cool ends of each gradient. Litter quality was poorest early in soil development or where soils were most intensely leached and waterlogged. In situ litter decomposition was slowest on the young 1855 flow (k=  0.26 and 0.14 at low and high elevation, respectively). The more fertile Laupahoehoe gradient also supported more rapid in situ decay at the warmer low elevation site (k=  0.90) than at high elevation (k=  0.51). The gradient with the most advanced soil development showed no difference for in situ decay at low and high elevations (k=  0.88 and 0.99, respectively) probably due to low soil nutrient availability at low elevation, which counteracted the effect of warmer temperature. Comparisons of in situ, common litter, and common site experiments indicated that site factors influenced decomposition more than litter quality did. The effect of temperature, however, could be over-ridden by soil fertility or other site factors. Field gradient studies of this sort yield variable estimates of apparent Q10, even under the best conditions, due to interactions among temperature, moisture, nutrient availability, decomposer communities and litter quality. Such interactions may be as likely to occur with changing climate as they are along elevational gradients.