Controls on long-term root and leaf litter decomposition in neotropical forests

Daniela F. Cusack, Wendy W. Chou, Wendy H. Yang, Mark E. Harmon, Whendee L. Silver

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Litter decomposition represents one of the largest annual fluxes of carbon (C) from terrestrial ecosystems, particularly for tropical forests, which are generally characterized by high net primary productivity and litter turnover. We used data from the Long-Term Intersite Decomposition Experiment (LIDET) to (1) determine the relative importance of climate and litter quality as predictors of decomposition rates, (2) compare patterns in root and leaf litter decomposition, (3) identify controls on net nitrogen (N) release during decay, and (4) compare LIDET rates with native species studies across five bioclimatically diverse neotropical forests. Leaf and root litter decomposed fastest in the lower montane rain and moist forests and slowest in the seasonally dry forest. The single best predictor of leaf litter decomposition was the climate decomposition index (CDI), explaining 51% of the variability across all sites. The strongest models for predicting leaf decomposition combined climate and litter chemistry, and included CDI and lignin (R2 = 0.69), or CDI, N and nonpolar extractives (R2 = 0.69). While we found no significant differences in decomposition rates between leaf and root litter, drivers of decomposition differed for the two tissue types. Initial stages of decomposition, determined as the time to 50% mass remaining, were driven primarily by precipitation for leaf litter (R2 = 0.93) and by temperature for root litter (R2 = 0.86). The rate of N release from leaf litter was positively correlated with initial N concentrations; net N immobilization increased with decreasing initial N concentrations. This study demonstrates that decomposition is sensitive to climate within and across tropical forests. Our results suggest that climate change and increasing N deposition in tropical forests are likely to result in significant changes to decomposition rates in this biome.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1339-1355
Number of pages17
JournalGlobal change biology
Issue number5
StatePublished - 2009
Externally publishedYes


  • Climate
  • Lignin
  • Nitrogen
  • Substrate quality
  • Tropical

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Ecology
  • General Environmental Science


Dive into the research topics of 'Controls on long-term root and leaf litter decomposition in neotropical forests'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this