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Analysis of litter decomposition in an alpine tundra

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Bryant, D. M., Holland, E. A., Seastedt, T. R., & Walker, M. D. (1998). Analysis of litter decomposition in an alpine tundra. Canadian Journal of Botany, 76(7), 1295-1304.

Decomposition of plant litter regulates nutrient cycling and transfers of fixed carbon to soil organic matter pools in terrestrial ecosystems. Climate, as well as factors of intrinsic Litter chemistry, often govern the rate of decomposition and thus the dynamics of these processes. Initial concentrations of nitrogen and recalcitrant carbon compounds in plant litter are good predictors of litter decomposition rates in many systems. The effect of exogenous nitrogen availability on decay rates, however, is not well defined. Microclimate factors vary widely within alpine tundra sites, potentially affecting litter decay rates at the local scale. A controlled factorial experiment was performed to assess the influence of landscape position and exogenous nitrogen additions on decomposition of surface foliage and buried root litter in an alpine tundra in the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, U.S.A. Litter bags were placed in three communities representing a gradient of soil moisture and temperature. Ammonium nitrate was applied once every 30 days at a rate of 20 g N.m(-2) during the 3-month growing season. Data, as part of the Long-Term Inter-site Decomposition Experiment Team project, were analyzed to ascertain the effects of intrinsic nitrogen and carbon fraction chemistry on litter decay in alpine systems. Soil moisture was found to be the primary controlling factor in surface litter mass loss. Root litter did not show significant mass loss following first growing season. Nitrogen additions had no effect on nitrogen retention, or decomposition, of surface or buried root litter compared with controls. The acid-insoluble carbon fraction was a good predictor of mass loss in surface litters, showing a strong negative correlation. Curiously, N concentration appeared to retard root decomposition, although degrees of freedom limit the confidence of this observation. Given the slow rate of decay and N loss from root Litter, root biomass appears to be a long-term reservoir for C and N in the alpine tundra. [References: 45]