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Land use not litter quality is a stronger driver of decomposition in hyperdiverse tropical forest

04 Oct 2017


In hyperdiverse tropical forests, the key drivers of litter decomposition are poorly understood despite its crucial role in facilitating nutrient availability for plants and microbes. Selective logging is a pressing land use with potential for considerable impacts on plant–soil interactions, litter decomposition, and nutrient cycling. Here, in Borneo's tropical rainforests, we test the hypothesis that decomposition is driven by litter quality and that there is a significant “home-field advantage,” that is positive interaction between local litter quality and land use. We determined mass loss of leaf litter, collected from selectively logged and old-growth forest, in a fully factorial experimental design, using meshes that either allowed or precluded access by mesofauna. We measured leaf litter chemical composition before and after the experiment. Key soil chemical and biological properties and microclimatic conditions were measured as land-use descriptors. We found that despite substantial differences in litter quality, the main driver of decomposition was land-use type. Whilst inclusion of mesofauna accelerated decomposition, their effect was independent of land use and litter quality. Decomposition of all litters was slower in selectively logged forest than in old-growth forest. However, there was significantly greater loss of nutrients from litter, especially phosphorus, in selectively logged forest. The analyses of several covariates detected minor microclimatic differences between land-use types but no alterations in soil chemical properties or free-living microbial composition. These results demonstrate that selective logging can significantly reduce litter decomposition in tropical rainforest with no evidence of a home-field advantage. We show that loss of key limiting nutrients from litter (P & N) is greater in selectively logged forest. Overall, the findings hint at subtle differences in microclimate overriding litter quality that result in reduced decomposition rates in selectively logged forests and potentially affect biogeochemical nutrient cycling in the long term.

Understanding the ecosystem functioning capacity of disturbed tropical forests is essential given their widespread dominance. In a multifactorial experiment, we investigated the consequences of selective logging for decomposition and nutrient cycling in Southeast Asia by testing the effects of litter chemical quality and site factors on litter mass loss. We found reduced litter decomposition independent of leaf litter quality in the selectively logged forest.

Click here to view the full article which appeared in Ecology and Evolution

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