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Research article2009Peer reviewed

Carbon loss from Brachystegia spiciformis leaf litter in the sandy soils of southern Mozambique

Nhantumbo, Alfredo B. J. C.; Katterer, Thomas; Ledin, Stig; Du Preez, Christiaan C.


Leaves of Brachystegia spiciformis represent a substantial fraction of the total aboveground litter in bush fallow fields with sandy soils in southern Mozambique, where annual rainfall exceeds 600 mm. This species is one of the most important in the miombo woodland that is the natural vegetation of the region. Proper knowledge of the decomposition of its litter is therefore crucial for understanding processes responsible for natural build-up of fertility in agricultural soils abandoned to bush fallow during shifting cultivation. This study investigated the effects of soil water content and soil temperature on loss of organic carbon (C) from decomposing leaves in litterbags with 1 mm mesh size. The litterbags were buried 50 mm deep in recently abandoned agricultural fields cleared of any vegetation (Bare) and in more than 15-year-old bush fallow fields (Fallow) of sites covering a climatic transect with annual rainfall from <400 mm to >1,000 mm. Two patterns of C loss were observed, one in coastal and wetter agroecosystems (rainfall >600 mm) and the other in inland and drier agroecosystems (rainfall <600 mm). In the wetter agroecosystems C loss was faster, whereas in drier agroecosystems it was more sensitive to rainfall pulses. Similarly, C loss was faster in fallow fields than in bare fields. During summer, bare fields reached soil temperatures higher than the estimated upper boundary favourable for C loss from decomposing leaf litter at all sites. A simple dynamic decomposition model describing the C fraction remaining in the litterbags was developed. Coefficients of determination (R 2) for the individual experimental units varied between 0.79 and 0.97. The general model for all sites and fields improved explanation of total variation from 81% to 86% when measured soil temperature and soil water content were used as modifiers of decomposition rate, compared with the standard negative exponential model. Root-mean-square error and systematic bias were 9.7% and 0.5% of initial C, respectively. Decomposition was more strongly affected by soil water content than by soil temperature and explained 75% of total variation. Thus, rainfall is the main driver of C loss from leaf litter in these agroecosystems.


Litter decomposition; Bush fallow; Agroecosystems

Published in

Nutrient cycling in agroecosystems
2009, Volume: 83, number: 1, pages: 13-26
Publisher: SPRINGER

      SLU Authors

    • Kätterer, Thomas

      • Department of Soil Sciences, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
      • Ledin, Stig

        • Department of Soil Sciences, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences

      UKÄ Subject classification

      Agricultural Science

      Publication identifier


      Permanent link to this page (URI)