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Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2023

Disentangling drivers of litter decomposition in a multi-continent network of tree diversity experiments

Desie, Ellen; Zuo, Juan; Verheyen, Kris; Djukic, Ika; Van Meerbeek, Koenraad; Auge, Harald; Barsoum, Nadia; Baum, Christel; Bruelheide, Helge; Eisenhauer, Nico; Feldhaar, Heike; Ferlian, Olga; Gravel, Dominique; Jactel, Herve; Schmidt, Inger Kappel; Kepfer-Rojas, Sebastian; Meredieu, Celine; Mereu, Simone; Messier, Christian; Morillas, Lourdes;
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Litter decomposition is a key ecosystem function in forests and varies in response to a range of climatic, edaphic, and local stand characteristics. Disentangling the relative contribution of these factors is challenging, especially along large environmental gradients. In particular, knowledge of the effect of management options, such as tree planting density and species composition, on litter decomposition would be highly valuable in forestry. In this study, we made use of 15 tree diversity experiments spread over eight countries and three continents within the global TreeDivNet network. We evaluated the effects of overstory composition (tree identity, species/mixture composition and species richness), plantation conditions (density and age), and climate (temperature and precipitation) on mass loss (after 3 months and 1 year) of two standardized litters: high-quality green tea and low-quality rooibos tea. Across continents, we found that early-stage decomposition of the low-quality rooibos tea was influenced locally by overstory tree identity. Mass loss of rooibos litter was higher under young gymnosperm overstories compared to angiosperm overstories, but this trend reversed with age of the experiment. Tree species richness did not influence decomposition and explained almost no variation in our multi-continent dataset. Hence, in the young plantations of our study, overstory composition effects on decomposition were mainly driven by tree species identity on decomposer communities and forest microclimates. After 12 months of incubation, mass loss of the high-quality green tea litter was mainly influenced by temperature whereas the low-quality rooibos tea litter decomposition showed stronger relationships with overstory composition and stand age. Our findings highlight that decomposition dynamics are not only affected by climate but also by management options, via litter quality of the identity of planted trees but also by overstory composition and structure.


Biodiversity; Biogeochemical cycle; Carbon turnover; Decomposition; Forest; Mass loss; Tea bag initiative; Tree communities; Tree species richness; TreeDivNet

Published in

Science of the Total Environment
2023, volume: 857, number: Part 3, article number: 159717

Authors' information

Desie, Ellen
KU Leuven
Zuo, Juan
Chinese Academy of Sciences
Zuo, Juan
KU Leuven
Zuo, Juan
Wuhan Botanical Garden, CAS
Verheyen, Kris
Ghent University
Djukic, Ika
Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology Domain
Van Meerbeek, Koenraad
KU Leuven
Auge, Harald
Helmholtz Association
Barsoum, Nadia
University of Leuven (KU Leuven)
Baum, Christel
Justus Liebig University Giessen
Bruelheide, Helge
Martin Luther University Halle Wittenberg
Eisenhauer, Nico
Leipzig University
Feldhaar, Heike
University of Bayreuth
Ferlian, Olga
Leipzig University
Gravel, Dominique
University of Sherbrooke
Jactel, Herve
Schmidt, Inger Kappel
University of Copenhagen
Kepfer-Rojas, Sebastian
University of Copenhagen
Meredieu, Celine
Mereu, Simone
Istituto per la BioEconomia (IBE-CNR)
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UKÄ Subject classification

Forest Science

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