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Contrasting Predictors of Fern versus Angiosperm Decomposition in a Common Garden


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We evaluated differences in the rates and correlates of decomposition among 32 fern and angiosperm litter types collected in Hawai'i. Leptosporangiate ferns were separated into groups based on phylogeny: ‘polypod’ ferns, a monophyletic clade of ferns that diversified in the Cretaceous, and all other (‘non-polypod’) ferns that diversified earlier. We measured initial litter chemistry (nutrients and carbon chemistry), and mass loss and nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and calcium (Ca) of litter tissue during a 1-yr incubation in a common garden. Nutrient concentrations and carbon (C) chemistry differed significantly among litter types, and litter turnover (k-values) ranged from 0.29 to 8.31. Decomposition rates were more closely correlated with nutrient concentration than is typically observed. Lignin:N was the best predictor of decomposition across all litter types combined; however, among plant groups different predictors of decomposition were important. Nitrogen and P concentrations best predicted fern decomposition, whereas C chemistry, particularly lignin concentration, was more important for angiosperm (monocot and dicot) decomposition. Among native plants, non-polypod ferns decomposed significantly more slowly than both polypod ferns and angiosperms. Contrary to our hypothesis, fern litter did not decompose more slowly than angiosperm litter overall. Nutrient dynamics in litter were affected by initial litter concentration more than phylogeny; low-nutrient litter immobilized more nutrients than high-nutrient litter. Systematic differences in rates of decomposition, and the importance of nutrients in predicting fern decomposition, imply that changes in species composition within ferns and between ferns and angiosperms could influence the functioning of ecosystems where ferns are important forest components.