Stronger influence of litter quality on decomposition rates than microbial home field advantage in novel subtropical dry forests

Tuesday, 15 December 2015
Poster Hall (Moscone South)
Erika Marin-Spiotta and Emily E Atkinson, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI, United States
Litter decomposition is one of the most studied ecosystem processes, given its role in carbon cycling and nutrient availability, yet our knowledge of how decomposition is influenced by novel species assemblages in tropical forests emerging on post-agricultural landscapes is limited. This is especially true in tropical dry forests, which are some of the most fragmented forests worldwide due to human pressures and sensitive to changes in rainfall and fire regimes. Here we tested for the effects of litter quality, site conditions, and microbial “home-field advantage” on decomposition rates in subtropical dry forests in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. We conducted a 22-month in situ and reciprocal transplant field decomposition experiment of aboveground litter and fine roots in 10-year old sites dominated by an early successional N-fixing tree and 40-year old mixed-species secondary forests. Total annual litterfall mass did not differ between the two forest types, but monthly amounts did, with more litter accumulating in the 40-year old secondary forests during the dry season and in the 10-year old secondary forests during the wet season. Litter chemistry differed between the two forest types and showed divergent patterns over the two-year field incubation. To test for the effects of litter quality on decomposition rates, we compared mass loss rates for aboveground and root litter from each forest decomposed in situ and transplanted to the other forest type. Litter in the 10-year old forests decomposed faster in situ (k= 1.07 ± 0.04) than when it was transplanted (k=0.86 ± 0.04). Litter from the 40-year old forests showed the opposite pattern. In situ root decomposition in both forests occurred at the same rate compared to roots that were transplanted there from the other forest type, suggesting that site conditions were equally important as litter quality. Our results were not consistent with a microbial home-field advantage for litter and root decomposition, that is, microbes were not more efficient at decomposing their own native litter, regardless of chemistry. Rather, decomposition patterns may be largely controlled by litter quality (and the combined effects of litter quality and site conditions specifically for roots) in contrast to the decomposer community in these subtropical dry forests.