Cycling of Organic Matter

  • Christopher S. Cronan
Part of the Springer Textbooks in Earth Sciences, Geography and Environment book series (STEGE)


One of the useful ways of integrating concepts of energy flow and nutrient cycling in a terrestrial ecosystem is to focus on the cycling of organic matter. The chemical energy and nutrients sequestered in terrestrial plant biomass or within a forest soil are part of a larger ecosystem cycle of organic matter characterized by (i) multiple storage pools with different residence times and (ii) multiple component processes, including trophic transfers among consumer organisms, production of detritus or necromass from senescent or dead life forms, release of elements from organic matter via decomposition and mineralization processes, evolution of gaseous CO2 from respiration, and recycling of nutrients into new growth of organisms. This chapter examines how organic matter pools are distributed in the landscape, what processes control organic matter cycling, and how organic matter cycling is influenced by environmental and ecological conditions.


  1. Baisden WT, Parfitt RL, Ross C, Schipper LA, Canessa S (2011) Evaluating 50 years of time-series soil radiocarbon data: towards routine calculation of robust C residence times. Biogeochemistry. doi: 10.1007/s10533-011-9675-y
  2. Berg B, Staaf H (1981) Leaching, accumulation, and release of nitrogen in decomposing forest litter. Ecol Bull 33:163–178Google Scholar
  3. Berg B, Davey MP, De Marco A, Emmett B, Faituri M, Hobbie SE, Johansson M-B, Liu C, McClaugherty C, Norell L, Rutigliano FA, Vesterdal L, Virzo De Santo A (2010) Factors influencing limit values for pine needle litter decomposition: a synthesis for boreal and temperate pine forest systems. Biogeochemistry 100:57–73CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bowden RD, Nadelhoffer KJ, Boone RD, Melillo JM, Garrison JB (1993) Contributions of aboveground litter, belowground litter, and root respiration to total soil respiration in a temperate mixed hardwood forest. Can J For Res 23:1402–1407CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bray JR, Gorham E (1964) Litter production in forests of the world. Adv Ecol Res 2:101–157CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Buchmann N (2000) Biotic and abiotic factors controlling soil respiration rates in Picea abies stands. Soil Biol Biochem 32:1625–1635CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bünemann EK (2015) Assessment of gross and net mineralization rates of soil organic phosphorus: a review. Soil Biol Biochem 89:82–98CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Coleman DC, Crossley DA (1996) Fundamentals of soil ecology. Academic Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  9. Covington WW (1981) Changes in forest floor organic matter and nutrient content following clear cutting in northern hardwoods. Ecology 62:41–48CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Cromack K, Monk CD (1975) Litter production, decomposition, and nutrient cycling in a mixed hardwood watershed and a white pine watershed. In: Howell FG et al. (eds) Mineral cycling in southeastern ecosystems. CONF-740513. National Technical Information Service, pp 609–624Google Scholar
  11. Cronan CS (1990) Patterns of organic acid transport from forested watersheds to aquatic ecosystems. In: Perdue EM, Gjessing ET (eds) Organic acids in aquatic ecosystems. Wiley, New York, pp 245–260Google Scholar
  12. Cronan CS (2003) Belowground biomass, production, and carbon cycling in mature Norway spruce, Maine, USA. Can J For Res 33:339–350CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Currie WS, Aber JD (1997) Modeling leaching as a decomposition process in humid montane forests. Ecology 78:1844–1860CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Cusack DF, Chadwick OA, Ladefoged T, Vitousek PM (2012) Long-term effects of agriculture on soil carbon pools and carbon chemistry along a Hawaiian environmental gradient. Biogeochemistry. doi: 10.1007/s10533-012-9718-z
  15. Dornbush ME, Isenhart TM, Raich JW (2002) Quantifying fine root decomposition: an alternative to buried litterbags. Ecology 83:2985–2990CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Edwards NT, Harris WF (1977) Carbon cycling in a mixed deciduous forest floor. Ecology 58:431–437CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Fahey TJ (1983) Nutrient dynamics of aboveground detritus in lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta Ssp. latifolia) ecosystems, southeastern Wyoming. Ecol Monogr 53:51–72CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Fahey TJ, Siccama TG, Driscoll CT, Likens GE, Campbell J, Johnson CE, Battles JJ, Aber JD, Cole JJ, Fisk MC, Groffman PM, Hamburg SP, Holmes RT, Schwarz PA, Yanai RD (2005) The biogeochemistry of carbon at Hubbard Brook. Biogeochemistry 75:109–176CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Foster JR, Lang GE (1982) Decomposition of red spruce and balsam fir boles in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Can J For Res 12:617–626CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Frey SD, Ollinger S, Nadelhoffer K, Bowden R, Brzostek E, Burton A, Caldwell BA, Crow S, Goodale CL, Grandy AS, Finzi A, Kramer MG, Lajtha K, LeMoine J, Martin M, McDowell WH, Minocha R, Sadowsky JJ, Templer PH, Wickings K (2014) Chronic nitrogen additions suppress decomposition and sequester soil carbon in temperate forests. Biogeochemistry 121:305–316CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Gaudinski JB, Trumbore SE, Davidson EA, Zheng S (2000) Soil carbon cycling in a temperate forest: radiocarbon-based estimates of residence times, sequestration rates, and partitioning fluxes. Biogeochemistry 51:33–69CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Gholz HL, Hendry LC, Cropper WP (1986) Organic matter dynamics of fine roots in plantations of slash pine (Pinus elliotti) in north Florida. Can J For Res 16:529–538CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Giardina CP, Ryan MG (2000) Evidence that decomposition rates of organic carbon in mineral soil do not vary with temperature. Nature 404:858–860CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Gonzalez G, Seastedt TR (2001) Soil fauna and plant litter decomposition in tropical and subalpine forests. Ecology 82:955–964CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Gosz JR, Likens GE, Bormann FH (1972) Nutrient content of litterfall on the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest, NH. Ecology 53:769–784CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Gosz JR, Likens GE, Bormann FH (1973) Nutrient release from decomposing leaf and branch litter in the Hubbard Brook Forest, NH. Ecol Monogr 43:173–191CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Gosz JR, Likens GE, Bormann FH (1976) Organic matter and nutrient dynamics of the forest and forest floor in the Hubbard Brook Forest. Oecologia 22:305–320CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Grier CC, Vogt KA, Keyes MR, Edmonds RL (1981) Biomass distribution and above- and belowground production in young and mature Abies amabilis zone ecosystems of the Washington cascades. Can J For Res 11:155–167CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Harmon ME, Franklin JF, Swanson FJ, Sollins P, Gregory SV, Lattin JD, Anderson NH, Cline SP, Aumen NG, Sedell JR, Lienkaemper GW, Cromack K, Cummins KW (1986) Ecology of coarse woody debris in temperate ecosystems. Adv Ecol Res 15:133–276CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Hart SC (1999) Nitrogen transformations in fallen tree boles and mineral soil of an old-growth forest. Ecology 80:1385–1394CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Haynes BE, Gower ST (1995) Belowground carbon allocation in unfertilized and fertilized red pine plantations in northern Wisconsin. Tree Physiol 15:317–325CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Hobbie SE (1996) Temperature and plant species control over litter decomposition in Alaskan tundra. Ecol Monogr 66:503–522CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Hobbie SE (2015) Plant species effects on nutrient cycling: revisiting litter feedbacks. Trends Ecol Evol 30:357–363CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Honeycutt CW, Zibilske LM, Clapham WM (1988) Heat units for describing C mineralization and predicting net N mineralization. Soil Sci Soc Am J 52:1346–1350CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Huntington TG, Ryan DF, Hamburg SP (1988) Estimating soil nitrogen and carbon pools in a northern hardwood forest ecosystem. Soil Sci Soc Am J 52:1162–1167CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Jobbagy EG, Jackson RB (2000) The vertical distribution of soil organic carbon and its relation to climate and vegetation. Ecol Appl 10:423–436CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Johnson DW (1992) Nitrogen retention in forest soils. J Environ Qual 21:1–12CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Joslin JD, Henderson GS (1987) Organic matter and nutrients associated with fine root turnover in a white oak stand. For Sci 33:330–346Google Scholar
  39. Lambert RL (1980) The biomass, coverage, and decay rates of dead boles in terrace forests, South Fork Hoh River, Olympic National Park. In: Second conference on scientific research in the National Parks, AIBS, San Francisco, pp 64–79Google Scholar
  40. Lambert RL, Lang GE, Reiners WA (1980) Loss of mass and chemical change in decaying boles of a subalpine balsam fir forest. Ecology 61:1460–1473CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Lang GE, Knight DH (1979) Decay rates for boles of tropical trees in Panama. Biotropica 11:316–317CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Lang GE, Cronan CS, Reiners WA (1981) Organic matter and major elements of the forest floors and soils in subalpine balsam fir forests. Can J For Res 11:388–399CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Manzoni S, Trofymow JA, Jackson RB, Porporato A (2010) Stoichiometric controls on carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus dynamics in decomposing litter. Ecol Monogr 80(1):89–106CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. McCormack LM, Crisfield E, Raczka B, Schnekenburger F, Eissenstat DM, Smithwick EAH (2015) Sensitivity of four ecological models to adjustments in fine root turnover rate. Ecol Model 297:107–117CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. McDowell WH, Likens GE (1988) Origin, composition, and flux of dissolved organic carbon in the Hubbard Brook Valley. Ecol Monogr 58:177–195CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. McFarlane KJ, Torn MS, Hanson PJ, Porras RC, Swanston CW, Callaham MA Jr, Guilderson TP (2012) Comparison of soil organic matter dynamics at five temperate deciduous forests with physical fractionation and radiocarbon measurements. Biogeochemistry. doi: 10.1007/s10533-012-9740-1
  47. Meentenmeyer V (1978) Macroclimate and lignin control of litter decomposition rates. Ecology 59:465–472CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Melillo JM, Aber JD, Muratore JF (1982) Nitrogen and lignin control hardwood leaf litter decomposition dynamics. Ecology 63:621–626CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Melillo JM, Aber JD, Linkins AE, Ricca A, Fry B, Nadelhoffer KJ (1989) Carbon and nitrogen dynamics along the decay continuum: plant litter to soil organic matter. Plant Soil 115:189–198CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Melillo JM, Steudler PA, Aber JD, Newkirk K, Lux H, Bowles FP, Catricala C, Magill A, Ahrens T, Morrisseau S (2002) Soil warming and carbon cycle feedbacks to the climate system. Science 298:2173–2176CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Mitchell MJ, Driscoll CT, Kahl JS, Likens GE, Murdoch PS, Pardo LH (1996) Climatic control of nitrate loss from forested watersheds in the northeast United States. Environ Sci Technol 30:2609–2612CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Montieth DT, Henrys PA, Evans CD, Malcolm I, Shilland EM, Pereira MG (2015) Spatial controls on dissolved organic carbon in upland waters inferred from a simple statistical model. Biogeochemistry 123:363–377CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Mueller KE, Hobbie SE, Chorover J, Reich PB, Eisenhauer N, Castellano MJ, Chadwick OA, Dobies T, Hale CM, Joagodzinski AM, Kalucka I, Kieliszewska-Rokicka B, Modrzynski J, Rozen A, Skorupski M, Sobczyk L, Stasinska M, Trocha LK, Weiner J, Wierzbicka A, Oleksyn J (2015) Effects of litter traits, soil biota, and soil chemistry on soil carbon stocks at a common garden with 14 tree species. Biogeochemistry 123:313–327CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Murphy KL, Klopatek JM, Klopatek CC (1998) The effects of litter quality and climate on decomposition along an elevational gradient. Ecol Appl 8:1061–1071CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Murphy CJ, Baggs EM, Morley N, Wall DP, Paterson E (2015) Rhizosphere priming can promote mobilization of N-rich compounds from soil organic matter. Soil Biol Biochem 81:236–243CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Neu V, Neill C, Krusche AV (2011) Gaseous and fluvial carbon export from an Amazon forest watershed. Biogeochemistry 105:133–147CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Olson JS (1963) Energy storage and the balance of producers and decomposers in ecological systems. Ecology 44:322–331CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Prescott CE (2010) Litter decomposition: what controls it and how can we alter it to sequester more carbon in forest soils? Biogeochemistry 101:133–149CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Qualls RG, Haines BL, Swank WT (1991) Fluxes of dissolved organic nutrients and humic substances in a deciduous forest. Ecology 72:254–266CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Raich JW, Nadelhoffer KJ (1989) Belowground carbon allocation in forest ecosystems: global trends. Ecology 70:1346–1354CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Reiners WA (1992) Twenty years of ecosystem reorganization following experimental deforestation and regrowth suppression. Ecol Monogr 62:503–523CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Richter DD, Markewitz D, Trumbore SE, Wells CG (1999) Rapid accumulation and turnover of soil carbon in a re-establishing forest. Nature 400:56–58CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Rustad LE (1994) Element dynamics along a decay continuum in a red spruce ecosystem in Maine, USA. Ecology 75:867–879CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Rustad LE, Cronan CS (1988) Element loss and retention during litter decay in a red spruce stand in Maine. Can J For Res 18:947–953CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Schlesinger WH (1977) Carbon balance in terrestrial detritus. Annu Rev Ecol Syst 8:51–81CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Schwarze FWMR, Engels J, Mattheck C (1999) Fungal strategies of wood decay in trees. Springer, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  67. Sinsabaugh RL, Follstad Shah JJ (2011) Ecoenzymatic stoichiometry of recalcitrant organic matter decomposition: the growth rate hypothesis in reverse. Biogeochemistry 102:31–43CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Staaf H, Berg B (1982) Accumulation and release of plant nutrients in decomposing Scots pine needle litter. Long-term decomposition in a Scots pine forest II. Can J Bot 60:1561–1568CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Strickland TC, Sollins P (1987) Improved method for separating light and heavy-fraction organic material from soil. Soil Sci Soc America J 51:1390–1393CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Talbot JM, Martin F, Kohler A, Henrissat B, Peay KG (2015) Functional guild classification predicts the enzymatic role of fungi in litter and soil biogeochemistry. Soil Biol Biochem 88:441–456CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Thompson MV, Vitousek PM (1997) Asymbiotic nitrogen fixation and litter decomposition during long-term soil development in Hawaiian montane rain forest. Biotropica 29:134–144CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Trumbore S (2000) Age of soil organic matter and soil respiration: radiocarbon constraints on belowground C dynamics. Ecol Appl 10:399–411CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Trumbore SE, Gaudinski JB (2003) The secret lives of roots. Science 302:1344–1345CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Trumbore SE, Chadwick OA, Amundson R (1996) Rapid exchange between soil carbon and atmospheric carbon dioxide driven by temperature change. Science 272:393–396CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Turner J, Singer MJ (1976) Nutrient distribution and cycling in a sub-alpine coniferous forest ecosystem. J Appl Ecolo 13:295–301CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Veldekampe E (1994) Organic carbon turnover in three tropical soils under pasture after deforestation. Soil Sci Soc Am J 58:175–180CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Vogt KA, Grier CC, Vogt DJ (1986) Production, turnover, and nutrient dynamics of above- and belowground detritus of world forests. Adv Ecol Res 15:303–377CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  78. Yavitt JB, Fahey TJ (1982) Loss of mass and nutrient changes of decaying woody roots in lodgepole pine forests, southeastern Wyoming. Can J For Res 12:745–752CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Christopher S. Cronan
    • 1
  1. 1.School of Biology and EcologyUniversity of MaineOronoUSA

Personalised recommendations