Plant traits relate to whole-community litter quality and decomposition following land use change


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  • 1Given the speed and extent of changes in vegetation as a result of human activity, there is a need to investigate ways in which individual species’ impacts on ecosystem processes can be generalized and scaled-up to the community level.
  • 2We focus on linking community functional parameters (mean of the traits of the plants in the community, weighted using four different methods) with litter chemistry and decomposition, in a chronosequence of currently managed and abandoned semi-natural grasslands in southern Sweden.
  • 3Changes in plant community composition with age since abandonment were reflected in community functional parameters: as expected, aggregated specific leaf area (SLA) declined, and aggregated leaf dry matter content (LDMC) and leaf carbon : nitrogen ratio (C : N) increased with plot age.
  • 4Several litter chemistry indices were closely linked with plant traits at the community level; in particular, community aggregated LDMC was correlated with the lignin and fibre content of the community litter.
  • 5Aggregated LDMC stood out as the trait most closely linked to community litter decomposition. This relationship was consistent across all three incubation periods (by which time up to c. 70% mass loss had occurred) and as strong as that between the best single chemical index of litter quality (lignin : N ratio) and litter mass loss.
  • 6Mass loss of whole community litter, incubated in its plot of origin, was related to mass loss of the same litter incubated under standard conditions, but not to decomposition of a standard substrate, indicating dominant substrate quality control over decomposition.
  • 7This study demonstrates the potential of the traits of living plants as a tool to link changes in species composition with ecosystem processes at the community level.