• chemical pathways;
  • climate change;
  • decomposition;
  • litter quality;
  • plant litter;
  • soil organic matter;
  • tropical rainforest


  • Litter decomposition is a key ecosystem process, yet our understanding of the drivers in chemical changes in leaves during decay is limited. Our aim was to determine the comparative differences (chemical divergence or convergence) between sites and the drivers of decay pathways.
  • We used the litterbag method (‘in situ’ litterfall and standardized ‘control’ leaves) in Australian tropical rainforests and near-infrared spectrometry to show the chemical pathways during decomposition (c. 360 d; 12 control sites; 17 in situ sites). Chemical convergence/divergence was determined from spectral dissimilarity and quantile regression along a mass loss moving average. The influence of environment (climate and soil) and litter quality on decay pathways was determined between sites using correlation analysis.
  • Throughout the region, litter composition in both treatments converged chemically during decay. However, divergent chemical pathways were shown for some samples/sites (especially with high initial lignin, phenolics and carbon (C), poor soil phosphorus (P), sodium (Na) and more seasonal moisture), and the diversity of decay residues increased with mass loss despite overall chemical convergence.
  • Our study suggests that there is general chemical convergence of leaf litter during early decay, but also that divergent chemical pathways occur in locations that experience more intense seasonal drying, and contain species or conditions that promote poor-quality litter.