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Keywords:

  • after-death interactions;
  • facilitation;
  • grassland restoration;
  • Hedges' d;
  • plant recruitment;
  • plant–plant interactions;
  • seedling biomass;
  • seedling emergence;
  • seedling survival;
  • stress-gradient hypothesis

Summary

  1. Plant litter is a key component in terrestrial ecosystems. It plays a major role in nutrient cycles and community organization. Land use and climate change may change the accumulation of litter in herbaceous ecosystems and affect plant community dynamics. Additionally, the transfer of seeds containing plant material (i.e. litter) is a widespread technique in grassland restoration.
  2. Ecosystem responses to litter represent the outcome of interactions, whose sign and strength will depend on many variables (e.g. litter amount, seed size). A previous meta-analysis (from 1999) reported that litter had an overall negative effect on seed germination and seedling establishment in different ecosystems. However, recent studies indicated that this might not be the case in grassland ecosystems.
  3. We used 914 data from 46 independent studies to analyse the effects of litter on seedling (i) emergence, (ii) survival and (iii) biomass, employing meta-analytical techniques. Each data set was stratified according to methodology, grassland type, irrigation conditions, litter amount and seed size.
  4. We found an overall neutral effect of litter presence on seedling emergence and survival and a positive effect on seedling biomass. However, whereas for field experiments the response remained neutral, it was positive for common garden studies. In glasshouse experiments, litter effects were negative for emergence and positive for biomass.
  5. Litter may have a positive effect on seedling recruitment in dry grasslands or under water-limited conditions, or in the presence of low to medium litter amounts (< 500 g m−2). However, high litter amounts (> 500 g m−2) will inhibit seedling recruitment. Large seeds showed a more positive response to litter presence with respect to seedling emergence and survival, but not concerning biomass.
  6. Synthesis. Under dry conditions (e.g. dry grasslands or dry periods) or with low to medium litter amounts, litter presence has a positive effect on seedling establishment. However, climate and land use change may promote litter accumulation and reduce seedling establishment, affecting grasslands composition and ecosystem functions.