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Relationships among leaf functional traits, litter traits, and mass loss during early phases of leaf litter decomposition in 12 woody plant species


Litter ‘quality’ or decomposability has historically been estimated through measuring chemical attributes, such as concentrations of nitrogen or ‘lignin’. More recently, foliar functional traits, which may incorporate indications of the physical structures of tissues, have been found to correlate with litter mass loss rates. However, these traits may not be adequate to predict early rates of mass loss, in which two factors are crucial: the amount of material quickly lost through leaching, and the ease of access of decomposer organisms to the more labile tissues in the interior of the litter. We investigated relationships among physical and chemical traits in foliage and litter of 12 species native to British Columbia and then observed how these traits related to mass loss during the first 3 months (Phase I) and between 3 and 12 months (Phase II). Novel traits measured in this study include cuticle thickness, litter leaching loss, and litter water uptake. Foliar and litter traits both co-varied along spectra, but several chemical traits, such as nitrogen concentration, changed from foliage to litter, i.e., during senescence. Phase I mass loss was best predicted by leaching loss and traits relating to leaching, such as cuticle thickness and specific leaf area. Phase II mass loss was predicted by traits that may relate to decomposer access and activity, such as leaf dry matter content and foliar nitrogen. Physical traits predicted mass loss as well or better than chemical traits, suggesting that physical characteristics of litter are important in determining early rates of decomposition.

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We would like to thank Lacey Samuels, Patrick Martone, and Miki Fujita of UBC Botany, Garnet Martens and Kevin Hodgson of UBC Bioimaging Facility, Maja Krzic, Valerie LeMay, Alice Chang, and Jason Barker of UBC Forestry, and Veronik Campbell of UBC Farm, for their insights, technical support, and access to resources. David Dunn of the Pacific Forestry Centre and Clive Dawson of the B.C. Ministry for the Environment performed chemical analyses of litter samples. Thank you to T. Philpott, A. Larocque, A. Wu, K. Corrao, and J. Antonio for field assistance, K. Janot and S. Starko for instrument troubleshooting, and T. Philpott, R. Ribbons, J. Amerongen Maddison, and D. Mendenhall for assisting in data interpretation. Funding was provided by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). JMZ gratefully acknowledges the following graduate fellowships: Cordula and Gunter Paetzold Memorial Fellowship, R. Howard Webster Fellowship, Faculty of Forestry Strategic Recruitment Fellowship, Mary and David Macaree Fellowship, George S. Allen Memorial Scholarship, VanDusen Graduate Scholarship, and Donald S. McPhee Fellowship. We would also like to thank the Editors and our anonymous reviewers.

Author information

JMZ and CEP together developed project idea, hypotheses, and methodology. JMZ collected the data and performed analyses, and coordinated chemical analyses of litter samples by other institutions. JMZ performed data analyses. JMZ and CEP interpreted the results. JMZ and CEP wrote the manuscript.

Correspondence to Jenna M. Zukswert.

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Funding was provided by Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Discovery grant to CEP.

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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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This article does not contain any studies with human participants or animals performed by any of the authors.

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Communicated by John M. Stark.

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Zukswert, J.M., Prescott, C.E. Relationships among leaf functional traits, litter traits, and mass loss during early phases of leaf litter decomposition in 12 woody plant species. Oecologia 185, 305–316 (2017).

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  • Leaf economics spectrum
  • Litter structure
  • Cuticle
  • Leaching
  • Decomposability