Research: Leaf Litter Decomposition & Functional Traits
Tropical forests store the majority of the biodiversity and contribute the greatest primary production on Earth, resulting in the production of large quantities of leaf litter. Litter decomposition is a crucial link in nutrient and carbon cycles, releasing nutrients bound in the plant biomass into the soil environment and making them available for subsequent biological processes and providing metabolic substrates for microbial decomposers. It is widely recognized that decomposition is a vital ecosystem function, but whether leaf litter decomposition rates are more strongly determined by the diversity of leaf litter functional traits present in a plant community or the soil environment is still poorly understood.
In a project recently begun by postdoctoral fellow Noelle Beckman, we will investigate how leaf functional traits of trees interact with microbial function to produce variation in leaf litter decomposition rates in a hyper-diverse Bornean rain forest growing on soil types forming a gradient of resource availability. The composition of tree species varies dramatically along this gradient, causing shifts in leaf functional traits and litter quality. We are using data on tree fresh leaf and leaf litter functional traits and manipulative experiments in the field to examine these processes.