Plant and Soil

, Volume 288, Issue 1–2, pp 197–215 | Cite as

Nutrient fluxes via litterfall and leaf litter decomposition vary across a gradient of soil nutrient supply in a lowland tropical rain forest

  • Daisy H. Dent
  • Robert Bagchi
  • David Robinson
  • Noreen Majalap-Lee
  • David F. R. P. Burslem
Original Paper


The extent to which plant communities are determined by resource availability is a central theme in ecosystem science, but patterns of small-scale variation in resource availability are poorly known. Studies of carbon (C) and nutrient cycling provide insights into factors limiting tree growth and forest productivity. To investigate rates of tropical forest litter production and decomposition in relation to nutrient availability and topography in the absence of confounding large-scale variation in climate and altitude we quantified nutrient fluxes via litterfall and leaf litter decomposition within three distinct floristic associations of tropical rain forest growing along a soil fertility gradient at the Sepilok Forest Reserve (SFR), Sabah, Malaysia. The quantity and nutrient content of small litter decreased along a gradient of soil nutrient availability from alluvial forest (most fertile) through sandstone forest to heath forest (least fertile). Temporal variation in litterfall was greatest in the sandstone forest, where the amount of litter was correlated negatively with rainfall in the previous month. Mass loss and N and P release were fastest from alluvial forest litter, and slowest from heath forest litter. All litter types decomposed most rapidly in the alluvial forest. Stand-level N and P use efficiencies (ratios of litter dry mass to nutrient content) were greatest for the heath forest followed by the sandstone ridge, sandstone valley and alluvial forests, respectively. We conclude that nutrient supply limits productivity most in the heath forest and least in the alluvial forest. Nutrient supply limited productivity in sandstone forest, especially on ridge and hill top sites where nutrient limitation may be exacerbated by reduced rates of litter decomposition during dry periods. The fluxes of N and P varied significantly between the different floristic communities at SFR and these differences may contribute to small-scale variation in species composition.


Habitat association Nutrient cycling Plant soil interactions Sepilok Forest Reserve Soil fertility gradient 



We thank the Natural Environment Research Council and the British Ecological Society for financial support. The Economic Planning Unit of the Federal Government of Malaysia kindly granted permission to conduct research in Malaysia. We also thank Reuben Nilus for advice, Dot Mackinnon, Kenn Cruickshank, Malcolm Leitch, Valerie Beattie and Niall Ferguson for assistance with the chemical analysis of litter samples, and Rineson Yudot, Doilin Yudot, Oliver Johnny, Edwin Matalin, Adzmi Madran and Bunga Seligi for their contribution to the field and laboratory work in Sepilok.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  • Daisy H. Dent
    • 1
    • 3
  • Robert Bagchi
    • 1
  • David Robinson
    • 1
  • Noreen Majalap-Lee
    • 2
  • David F. R. P. Burslem
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Plant and Soil Science, School of Biological SciencesUniversity of AberdeenAberdeenUK
  2. 2.Department of ChemistryForest Research CentreSandakan, SabahMalaysia
  3. 3.Royal Botanic Gardens KewRichmond, SurreyUK

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