Fine root decomposition rates do not mirror those of leaf litter among temperate tree species.

Hobbie, S.E., Oleksyn, J., Eissenstat, D.M. and Reich, P.B. 2010; Oecologia 162: 505-513


Elucidating the function of and patterns among plant traits above ground has been a major research focus, while the patterns and functioning of belowground traits remain less well understood. Even less well known is whether species differences in leaf traits and their associated biogeochemical effects are mirrored by differences in root traits and their effects. We studied fine root decomposition and N dynamics in a common garden study of 11 temperate European and North American tree species (Abies alba, Acer platanoides, Acer pseudoplatanus, Carpinus betulus, Fagus sylvatica, Larix decidua, Picea abies, Pseudotsuga menziesii, Quercus robur, Quercus rubra and Tilia cordata) to determine whether leaf litter and fine root decomposition rates are correlated across species as well as which species traits influence microbial decomposition above versus below ground. Decomposition and N immobilization rates of fine roots were unrelated to those of leaf litter across species. The lack of correspondence of above- and belowground processes arose partly because the tissue traits that influenced decomposition and detritus N dynamics different for roots versus leaves, and partly because influential traits were unrelated between roots and leaves across species. For example, while high hemicellulose concentrations and thinner roots were associated with more rapid decomposition below ground, low lignin and high Ca concentrations were associated with rapid aboveground leaf decomposition. Our study suggests that among these temperate trees, species effects on C and N dynamics in decomposing fine roots and leaf litter may not reinforce each other. Thus, species differences in rates of microbially mediated decomposition may not be as large as they would be if above- and belowground processes were working in similar directions (i.e., if faster decomposition above ground corresponded to faster decomposition below ground). Our results imply that studies that focus solely on aboveground traits may obscure some of the important mechanisms by which plant species influence ecosystem processes.