Landscape context mediates the relationship between plant functional traits and decomposition

Aims -- It has been well demonstrated that several interacting endogenous and exogenous factors influence decomposition. However, teasing apart the direct and indirect effects of these factors to predict decomposition patterns in heterogenous landscapes remains a key challenge.

Methods -- At 157 locations in a temperate forest, we measured decomposition of a standard substrate (filter paper) over two years, the landscape context in which decomposition took place, and the functional composition of the woody species that contributed leaf litter to the forest floor where litter bags were placed. We tested for direct and indirect effects of landscape context and direct effects of forest functional composition on decay using structural equation modelling.

Results -- We found that landscape context had direct effects on decay and indirect effects on decay via its influence on the functional composition of the surrounding forest. Forest functional composition also had direct effects on decay, but these effects decreased or disappeared completely over time. Moreover, community weighted mean trait values were better predictors of decay than functional dispersion of leaf traits, and leaf nitrogen content and carbon content were better predictors of decay than leaf dry matter content or leaf toughness.

Conclusions -- Our results highlight the importance of an integrative approach that examines the direct and indirect effects of multiple factors for understanding and predicting decomposition patterns across heterogenous landscapes.

Spasojevic, M.J., K. Harline, C. Stein, S.A. Mangan & J.A. Myers
Plant and Soil