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Elevated CO2 increases the long-term decomposition rate of Quercus myrtifolia leaf litter


Mark D. Hunter, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1048, USA. tel. +734 615 4917, e-mail:


Decomposition of Quercus myrtifolia leaf litter in a Florida scrub oak community was followed for 3 years in two separate experiments. In the first experiment, we examined the effects CO2 and herbivore damage on litter quality and subsequent decomposition. Undamaged, chewed and mined litter generated under ambient and elevated (ambient+350 ppm V) CO2 was allowed to decompose under ambient conditions for 3 years. Initial litter chemistry indicated that CO2 levels had minor effects on litter quality. Litter damaged by leaf miners had higher initial concentrations of condensed tannins and nitrogen (N) and lower concentrations of hemicellulose and C : N ratios compared with undamaged and chewed litter. Despite variation in litter quality associated with CO2, herbivory, and their interaction, there was no subsequent effect on rates of decomposition under ambient atmospheric conditions. In the second experiment, we examined the effects of source (ambient and elevated) of litter and decomposition site (ambient and elevated) on litter decomposition and N dynamics. Litter was not separated by damage type. The litter from both elevated and ambient CO2 was then decomposed in both elevated and ambient CO2 chambers. Initial litter chemistry indicated that concentrations of carbon (C), hemicellulose, and lignin were higher in litter from elevated than ambient CO2 chambers. Despite differences in C and fiber concentrations, litter from ambient and elevated CO2 decomposed at comparable rates. However, the atmosphere in which the decomposition took place resulted in significant differences in rates of decomposition. Litter decomposing under elevated CO2 decomposed more rapidly than litter under ambient CO2, and exhibited higher rates of mineral N accumulation. The results suggest that the atmospheric conditions during the decomposition process have a greater impact on rates of decomposition and N cycling than do the atmospheric conditions under which the foliage was produced.

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