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Effects of fire frequency on litter decomposition as mediated by changes to litter chemistry and soil environmental conditions

Ficken, C.D. and J.P. Wright. 2017.


Litter quality and soil environmental conditions are well-studied drivers influencing decomposition rates, but the role played by disturbance legacy, such as fire history, in mediating these drivers is not well understood. Fire history may impact decomposition directly, through changes in soil conditions that impact microbial function, or indirectly, through shifts in plant community composition and litter chemistry. Here, we compared early-stage decomposition rates across longleaf pine forest blocks managed with varying fire frequencies (annual burns, triennial burns, fire-suppression). Using a reciprocal transplant design, we examined how litter chemistry and soil characteristics independently and jointly influenced litter decomposition. We found that both litter chemistry and soil environmental conditions influenced decomposition rates, but only the former was affected by historical fire frequency. Litter from annually burned sites had higher nitrogen content than litter from triennially burned and fire suppression sites, but this was correlated with only a modest increase in decomposition rates. Soil environmental conditions had a larger impact on decomposition than litter chemistry. Across the landscape, decomposition differed more along soil moisture gradients than across fire management regimes. These findings suggest that fire frequency has a limited effect on litter decomposition in this ecosystem, and encourage extending current decomposition frameworks into disturbed systems. However, litter from different species lost different masses due to fire, suggesting that fire may impact decomposition through the preferential combustion of some litter types. Overall, our findings also emphasize the important role of spatial variability in soil environmental conditions, which may be tied to fire frequency across large spatial scales, in driving decomposition rates in this system.