Drivers of litter mass loss and faunal composition of detritus patches change over time

Ecol Evol. 2021 Jun 23;11(14):9642-9651. doi: 10.1002/ece3.7787. eCollection 2021 Jul.


Decomposition of vegetal detritus is one of the most fundamental ecosystem processes. In complex landscapes, the fate of litter of terrestrial plants may depend on whether it ends up decomposing in terrestrial or aquatic conditions. However, (1) to what extent decomposition rates are controlled by environmental conditions or by detritus type, and (2) how important the composition of the detritivorous fauna is in mediating decomposition in different habitats, remain as unanswered questions. We incubated two contrasting detritus types in three distinct habitat types in Coastal Georgia, USA, to test the hypotheses that (1) the litter fauna composition depends on the habitat and the litter type available, and (2) litter mass loss (as a proxy for decomposition) depends on environmental conditions (habitat) and the litter type. We found that the abundance of most taxa of the litter fauna depends primarily on habitat. Litter type became a stronger driver for some taxa over time, but the overall faunal composition was only weakly affected by litter type. Decomposition also depends strongly on habitat, with up to ca. 80% of the initial detrital mass lost over 25 months in the marsh and forest habitats, but less than 50% lost in the creek bank habitat. Mass loss rates of oak versus pine litter differed initially but converged within habitat types within 12 months. We conclude that, although the habitat type is the principle driver of the community composition of the litter fauna, litter type is a significant driver of litter mass loss in the early stages of the decomposition process. With time, however, litter types become more and more similar, and habitat becomes the dominating factor in determining decomposition of older litter. Thus, the major driver of litter mass loss changes over time from being the litter type in the early stages to the habitat (environmental conditions) in later stages.

Keywords: decomposition; habitat comparison; leaf litter; litter fauna.