A meta-analysis of climatic and chemical controls on leaf litter decay rates in tropical forests.

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Although tropical forests occupy a small fraction of the earth’s total land area, they play a disproportionately large role in regulating the global carbon cycle. Yet controls on both primary productivity and decomposition in tropical forests are not well-studied in comparison with temperate forests and grasslands, despite their extreme biogeochemical heterogeneity. To evaluate the relative importance of climate and foliar chemical variables in driving decomposition in tropical forests, I performed a meta-analysis of reported leaf litter decay rates throughout tropical forest ecosystems. Using a model selection procedure based on Akaike’s Information Criterion, I found that temperature and precipitation played little direct role in regulating decomposition rates, except in montane forests where cool temperatures slowed decay. Foliar concentrations of calcium, magnesium, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium were important predictors of mass loss rates, although each of these factors explained a very small amount of variance when considered in isolation. The large amount of unexplained variation in decomposition rates observed both within and across tropical forest sites may be due to other factors not explored here, such as soil biota or complex plant secondary chemistry. Carbon cycling in tropical forests seems to be modulated by the availability of multiple nutrients, underscoring the need for additional manipulative experiments to explore patterns of belowground nutrient limitation across the biome. Because models of decomposition developed in temperate ecosystems do not appear to be generalizable to wet tropical forests, new biogeochemical paradigms should be developed to accommodate their unique combination of climatic, edaphic, and biotic factors.

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