Trade-offs in resource allocation among moss species control decomposition in boreal peatlands


*Correspondence author. E-mail:


  • 1We separated the effects of plant species controls on decomposition rates from environmental controls in northern peatlands using a full factorial, reciprocal transplant experiment of eight dominant bryophytes in four distinct peatland types in boreal Alberta, Canada. Standard fractionation techniques as well as compound-specific pyrolysis molecular beam mass spectrometry were used to identify a biochemical mechanism underlying any interspecific differences in decomposition rates.
  • 2We found that over a 3-year field incubation, individual moss species and not micro-environmental conditions controlled early stages of decomposition. Across species, Sphagnum mosses exhibited a trade-off in resource partitioning into metabolic and structural carbohydrates, a pattern that served as a strong predictor of litter decomposition.
  • 3Decomposition rates showed a negative co-variation between species and their microtopographic position, as species that live in hummocks decomposed slowly but hummock microhabitats themselves corresponded to rapid decomposition rates. By forming litter that degrades slowly, hummock mosses appear to promote the maintenance of macropore structure in surface peat hummocks that aid in water retention.
  • 4Synthesis. Many northern regions are experiencing rapid climate warming that is expected to accelerate the decomposition of large soil carbon pools stored within peatlands. However, our results suggest that some common peatland moss species form tissue that resists decomposition across a range of peatland environments, suggesting that moss resource allocation could stabilize peatland carbon losses under a changing climate.