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Journal of Ecology






Wiley-Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

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Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.


  1. To evaluate how increased anthropogenic nutrient inputs alter carbon cycling in grasslands, we conducted a litter decomposition study across 20 temperate grasslands on three continents within the Nutrient Network, a globally distributed nutrient enrichment experiment
  2. We determined the effects of addition of experimental nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium plus micronutrient (Kμ) on decomposition of a common tree leaf litter in a long-term study (maximum of 7 years; exact deployment period varied across sites). The use of higher order decomposition models allowed us to distinguish between the effects of nutrients on early- versus late-stage decomposition.
  3. Across continents, the addition of N (but not other nutrients) accelerated early-stage decomposition and slowed late-stage decomposition, increasing the slowly decomposing fraction by 28% and the overall litter mean residence time by 58%.
  4. Synthesis. Using a novel, long-term cross-site experiment, we found widespread evidence that N enhances the early stages of above-ground plant litter decomposition across diverse and widespread temperate grassland sites but slows late-stage decomposition. These findings were corroborated by fitting the data to multiple decomposition models and have implications for N effects on soil organic matter formation. For example, following N enrichment, increased microbial processing of litter substrates early in decomposition could promote the production and transfer of low molecular weight compounds to soils and potentially enhance the stabilization of mineral-associated organic matter. By contrast, by slowing late-stage decomposition, N enrichment could promote particulate organic matter (POM) accumulation. Such hypotheses deserve further testing.

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