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Nutritional and Plant-Mediated Controls on Leaf Litter Decomposition of Carex Species

Rien Aerts and Hannie de Caluwe
Ecology
Vol. 78, No. 1 (Jan., 1997), pp. 244-260
Published by: Wiley
DOI: 10.2307/2265993
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2265993
Page Count: 17
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Nutritional and Plant-Mediated Controls on Leaf Litter Decomposition of Carex Species
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Abstract

We studied the effects of experimentally induced variation in leaf litter chemistry on leaf litter decomposition and leaf litter nutrient release of Carex species from habitats that differ in nutrient availability. Carex diandra, C. rostrata, and C. lasiocarpa are dominant in less productive mesotrophic fens, whereas C. acutiformis is dominant in more productive eutrophic fens. For each species, three types of litter were used: litter collected in the field (FLD); and litter from experimental populations grown at low (LN: 3.3 g N·m-2·yr-1) and high N supply (HN: 20.0 g N·m-2·yr-1). For all the litter chemistry parameters studied there were highly significant interactions between species and litter type. This implies that, due to differential plant-mediated controls on leaf litter chemistry, it is not always possible to predict changes in litter chemistry in response to increased nutrient supply. Litter decay was determined in a long-term (3 yr) field experiment using litter bags. The litter types of each species were incubated at their native growing sites. Contrary to what is generally found, the leaf litter decomposition rate of the species growing at the nutrient-poorest site (C. diandra) was higher than that of the species growing at the nutrient-richest site (C. acutiformis). Only for C. diandra and C. lasiocarpa was the decomposition rate of the litter from the HN treatment higher than that of the field litter. Thus, increased nutrient supply does not necessarily lead to higher litter decomposition rates. Nutrient controls on litter decay changed with time: initial litter decay (≤ 3 mo) was strongly controlled (high r2 values) by all P-related litter quality parameters, whereas long-term litter decay (> 1 yr) was most strongly related with the phenolics: N ratio, the phenolics: P ratio, the lignin: N ratio, and the C:N ratio. Our data suggest that high levels of atmospheric N deposition, such as in the study area (The Netherlands), may lead to a relative shortage of P in the plant-derived substrates for bacteria and fungi. As a result, P-related litter chemistry parameters exert a strong influence on litter decay. Our data did not support the hypothesis that high-nutrient species increase nutrient cycling due to the production of easily decomposable litter with high rates of nutrient release. The leaf litter from Carex acutiformis, the species from the high-productivity fens, decomposed more slowly than that of the other species, immobilized more N and P and had a longer period of net N and P immobilization. However, this species has a higher litter production than the other species and thereby increases the rate of nutrient cycling. At the intraspecific level, increased nutrient supply led to lower amounts of immobilized N and P and faster N and P release from litter in most species, and thereby to a higher rate of nutrient cycling. This positive feedback between nutrient supply rate and the rate of nutrient cycling is reinforced by the increase in litter production in response to increased nutrient supply.

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