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Winter climate change implications for decomposition in northeastern forests: comparisons of sugar maple litter with herbivore fecal inputs


L. M. Christenson, tel. +845 437 5834, e-mail:


Forests in northeastern North America are influenced by varying climatic and biotic factors; however, there is concern that rapid changes in these factors may lead to important changes in ecosystem processes such as decomposition. Climate change (especially warming) is predicted to increase rates of decomposition in northern latitudes. Warming in winter may result in complex effects including decreased levels of snow cover and an increased incidence of soil freezing that will effect decomposition. Along with these changes in climate, moose densities have also been increasing in this region, likely affecting nutrient dynamics. We measured decomposition and N release from 15N-labeled sugar maple leaf litter and moose feces over 20 months in reference and snow removal treatment (to induce soil freezing) plots in two separate experiments at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire, USA. Snow removal/soil freezing decreased decomposition of maple litter, but stimulated N transfer to soil and microbial biomass. Feces decomposed more rapidly than maple litter, and feces N moved into the mineral soil more than N derived from litter, likely due to the lower C : N ratio of feces. Feces decomposition was not affected by the snow removal treatment. Total microbial biomass (measured as microbial N and C) was not significantly affected by the treatments in either the litter or feces plots. These results suggest that increases in soil freezing and/or large herbivore populations, increase the transfer rate of N from plant detritus or digested plants into the mineral soil. Such changes suggest that altering the spatial and temporal patterns of soil freezing and moose density have important implications for ecosystem N cycling.

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