Can growth form classification predict litter nutrient dynamics and decomposition rates in lowland wet forest?
This study investigates whether it is possible to simplify the complex influence of numerous species on leaf litter decomposition in a diverse tropical forest using functional classifications to predict litter quality decomposition rate and nutrient dynamics during decomposition over a 2-yr period. Thirty-three lowland tropical forest plant species from contrasting growth forms (canopy trees pioneer trees lianas palms herbs) were studied. Twelve of 18 indices of litter quality varied significantly among growth forms with canopy trees and palms showing lower litter quality than pioneer trees and herbs. Canopy leaves decomposed more slowly than understory leaves. Decomposition rate and mass loss trended greater (P<0.1) in herbs and pioneer trees compared with other growth forms. There were no significant differences between monocots and dicots and no phylogenetic signal for decomposition was observed. Significant correlations between continuous litter quality variables and decomposition rate were observed with correlation coefficients up to 0.72. Litter lignin:Mg P concentration and lignin:K were the litter quality variables most related to decomposition rate. All elements showed significant negative correlations between initial litter concentration and percent remaining but many elements showed significant correlation between percent element remaining and initial concentrations of other elements indicating a stoichiometric balance between these elements during decomposition. The results show that although classification by growth form and canopy position are helpful for considering the ecosystem implications of changing community composition litter quality traits provide additional predictive power for estimating the effects of species change on decomposition.