Habitat-specific effects of bark on wood decomposition: Influences of fragmentation, nitrogen concentration and microbial community composition

Jennifer M. Jones, Katy D. Heath, Astrid Ferrer, James W. Dalling

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Identifying the drivers of decomposition is critical for understanding carbon cycling dynamics in forest ecosystems. Woody biomass is an important pool of carbon, composed of bark and underlying wood which vary in structure, nutrient concentrations and exposure to the environment. We hypothesized that higher nutrient concentrations in bark would speed the decomposition of underlying wood, and that this effect would be greater in streams, where nutrients are less available to decomposers than on land. Replicate branches of three tree species, with and without bark, were placed in streams and on land in a lowland tropical forest in Panama. After 3 and 11 months of decomposition, we measured mass loss and nitrogen (N) concentrations and sequenced the fungal and bacterial communities of both wood and bark tissues. While bark decomposed faster than the underlying wood and had higher N concentrations, bark presence slowed wood mass loss. Nitrogen concentration could account for interspecific variation in wood mass loss, but not bark mass loss. In contrast, bark mass loss, but not wood mass loss, was faster in streams than on land, suggesting fragmentation is more important for bark mass loss in streams. Differences in fungal and bacterial community composition between bark and wood substrates were significant but small. Our results indicate that bark can slow wood decomposition instead of promoting it, and that at least for branch wood, the primary drivers of decomposition differ between bark and wood. Differences in the factors driving decomposition rate between bark and wood suggest that the contribution of bark to the decomposition of woody biomass may depend on habitat. A free Plain Language Summary can be found within the Supporting Information of this article.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1123-1133
Number of pages11
JournalFunctional Ecology
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 1 2020


  • aquatic
  • bacterial communities
  • decay
  • freshwater streams
  • fungal communities
  • tropical forest

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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