Rapid nutrient cycling in leaf litter from invasive plants in Hawai'i

Oecologia. 2004 Dec;141(4):612-9. doi: 10.1007/s00442-004-1679-z. Epub 2004 Aug 3.


Physiological traits that contribute to the establishment and spread of invasive plant species could also have impacts on ecosystem processes. The traits prevalent in many invasive plants, such as high specific leaf areas, rapid growth rates, and elevated leaf nutrient concentrations, improve litter quality and should increase rates of decomposition and nutrient cycling. To test for these ecosystem impacts, we measured initial leaf litter properties, decomposition rates, and nutrient dynamics in 11 understory plants from the Hawaiian islands in control and nitrogen + phosphorus fertilized plots. These included five common native species, four of which were ferns, and six aggressive invasive species, including five angiosperms and one fern. We found a 50-fold variation in leaf litter decay rates, with natives decaying at rates of 0.2-2.3 year(-1) and invaders at 1.4-9.3 year(-1). This difference was driven by very low decomposition rates in native fern litter. Fertilization significantly increased the decay rates of leaf litter from two native and two invasive species. Most invasive litter types lost nitrogen and phosphorus more rapidly and in larger quantities than comparable native litter types. All litter types except three native ferns lost nitrogen after 100 days of decomposition, and all litter types except the most recalcitrant native ferns lost >50% of initial phosphorus by the end of the experiment (204-735 days). If invasive understory plants displace native species, nutrient cycling rates could increase dramatically due to rapid decomposition and nutrient release from invasive litter. Such changes are likely to cause a positive feedback to invasion in Hawai'i because many invasive plants thrive on nutrient-rich soils.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Analysis of Variance
  • Ecosystem*
  • Hawaii
  • Nitrogen / metabolism
  • Phosphorus / metabolism
  • Plant Leaves / metabolism*
  • Plants / metabolism*
  • Soil / analysis
  • Species Specificity


  • Soil
  • Phosphorus
  • Nitrogen