Decomposition dynamics in mixed-species leaf litter


  • Tracy B. Gartner,

  • Zoe G. Cardon

T. B. Gartner, 103 Tyson Building, Dept of Horticulture, Penn State Univ., University Park, PA 16802, USA ( – Z. G. Cardon, Dept of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, 75 N. Eagleville Road, U-3043, Univ. of Connecticut, Storrs, CT 06269, USA.


Literature on plant leaf litter decomposition is substantial, but only in recent years have potential interactions among leaves of different species during decomposition been examined. We review emerging research on patterns of mass loss, changes in nutrient concentration, and decomposer abundance and activity when leaves of different species are decaying in mixtures. Approximately 30 papers have been published that directly examine decomposition in leaf mixtures as well as in all component species decaying alone. From these litter-mix experiments, it is clear that decomposition patterns are not always predictable from single-species dynamics. (Characteristics of decomposition in litter-mixes that deviate from responses predicted from decomposition of single-species litters alone are designated "non-additive"; "additive" responses in mixes are predictable from component species decaying alone.) Non-additive patterns of mass loss were observed in 67% of tested mixtures; mass loss is often (though not always) increased when litters of different species are mixed. Observed mass loss in some mixtures is as much as 65% more extensive than expected from decomposition of single-species litter, but more often mass loss in mixtures exceeds expected decay by 20% or less. Nutrient transfer among leaves of different species is striking, with 76% of the mixtures showing non-additive dynamics of nutrient concentrations. Non-additive patterns in the abundance and activity of decomposers were observed in 55% and 65% of leaf mixes, respectively. We discuss some methodological details that likely contribute to conflicting results among mixed-litter studies to date. Enough information is available to begin formulating mechanistic hypotheses to explain patterns in litter-mix experiments. Emerging patterns in the mixed-litter decomposition literature have implications for relationships between biodiversity and ecosystem function (in this case, the function being decomposition), and for potential mechanisms through which invasive plant species could alter carbon and nutrient dynamics in ecosystems.