Litter quality is in the eye of the beholder: initial decomposition rates as a function of inoculum characteristics


*Correspondence author. E-mail:


  • 1The chemical composition of plant litter is commonly considered to indicate its quality as a resource for decomposer organisms. Litter quality, defined in this way, has been shown to be a major determinant of litter decomposition rates both within and across terrestrial ecosystems. Notably, the structure of the microbial community that is directly responsible for primary decomposition is rarely considered as an empirical predictor of litter decay rates.
  • 2Microbial communities are generally assumed to perceive litters of the same chemical composition to be of equivalent resource quality but evidence from field studies suggests that these same communities may adapt to the prevalent litter types at a given site. Here, we tested this assumption by assessing how microbial communities sourced from different forest- and herbaceous-dominated ecosystems perceive the quality of novel, foliar litters derived from a tree (Rhododendron maximum) and from a grass (Panicum virgatum) species. Based on chemical composition, we would expect R. maximum litter to be of lower quality than P. virgatum litter.
  • 3We used an experimental litter–soil system which employs a ‘common garden’ approach and measured rates of CO2 production across 50 days; higher rates of production were assumed to indicate higher quality (i.e. more easily degradable) litter.
  • 4We found that communities sourced from habitats under differing plant cover perceived litter quality differently. Those communities sourced from herbaceous habitats perceived the grass litter to be of higher quality than the tree litter, whereas communities from forest habitats decomposed both litter types similarly. Within a litter type, differences in both community composition and nutrient availability of the source habitat were related to decomposition rates.
  • 5Our results suggest that litter quality cannot necessarily be predicted solely from chemical characteristics; instead the perceived quality is dependent on the quality of past resource inputs a community has experienced and the structure of those microbial communities responsible for the initial stages of litter decomposition.