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Changes in the ratio of twig to foliage in litterfall with species composition, and consequences for decomposition across a long term chronosequence


  • Fiona M. Dearden,

  • Helena Dehlin,

  • David A. Wardle,

  • Marie-Charlotte Nilsson

F. M. Dearden (, Dept of Animal and Plant Sciences, Univ. of Sheffield, Sheffield, England, S10 2TN. – H. Dehlin, D. A. Wardle and M-C. Nilsson, Dept of Forest Vegetation Ecology, Swedish Univ. of Agricultural Sciences, SE 901-83 Umeå, Sweden. – DAW also at Landcare Research, P.O. Box 69, Lincoln, New Zealand.


In the past two centuries, anthropogenic fire suppression has affected many biomes, including boreal forests. Absence of fire in the boreal zone is often linked to declining soil fertility and increased carbon sequestration in the humus through changes in NPP and litter decomposition. We studied tree litterfall and litter decomposition for thirty lake islands in the boreal forested zone of Sweden, which differ naturally in fire regime: larger islands have burned far more frequently than smaller ones because they are intercepted more often by lightning. We used litter trays to show that the ratio of twig to foliar litterfall for Picea abies with prolonged absence of fire is largely responsible for the concomitant increased twig proportion in the total litterfall. We hypothesised that the increased twig proportion in the litterfall with time since fire would affect overall decomposition by reducing net litter quality and through impairing decomposition of associated foliar litters. We established a litter decomposition mesocosm experiment based on litter from the three main tree species found on the islands. From each of the thirty islands, we prepared a set of litterbags comprising three mixtures (all foliar litters combined, all twig litters combined, and all twig and foliar litters combined), plus monotypes (i.e. each of the separate foliage and twig litters for each species). Unlike most studies, we used the natural litterfall proportions in the mixtures. We found a (negative) effect of time since wildfire on decomposition rate for only the foliage-twig mixtures, although twig litter did not inhibit the decomposition of foliar litter within these mixtures. The reduced decomposition rate in the foliage-twig mixture from the small islands was therefore due to the increased proportion of twigs in the mixtures from these islands. Our results suggest that, with prolonged absence of fire, the increase of twig proportion in the foliage-twig litterfall for P. abies combined with the shift to canopy dominance by P. abies may be important in contributing to reduced decomposition rates in boreal forest soils.