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Ecology. 2017 May;98(5):1361-1376. doi: 10.1002/ecy.1790. Epub 2017 Apr 7.

Shrub encroachment in Arctic tundra: Betula nana effects on above- and belowground litter decomposition.

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Department of Biological Sciences, University of Texas at El Paso, El Paso, Texas, 79968, USA.
Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University, Lancaster, LA1 4YW, UK.
The Ecosystems Center, Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, Massachusetts, 02543, USA.
Department of Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology, University of California Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, California, 93106, USA.
Department of Biological Sciences, Towson University, Towson, Maryland, 21252, USA.


Rapid arctic vegetation change as a result of global warming includes an increase in the cover and biomass of deciduous shrubs. Increases in shrub abundance will result in a proportional increase of shrub litter in the litter community, potentially affecting carbon turnover rates in arctic ecosystems. We investigated the effects of leaf and root litter of a deciduous shrub, Betula nana, on decomposition, by examining species-specific decomposition patterns, as well as effects of Betula litter on the decomposition of other species. We conducted a 2-yr decomposition experiment in moist acidic tundra in northern Alaska, where we decomposed three tundra species (Vaccinium vitis-idaea, Rhododendron palustre, and Eriophorum vaginatum) alone and in combination with Betula litter. Decomposition patterns for leaf and root litter were determined using three different measures of decomposition (mass loss, respiration, extracellular enzyme activity). We report faster decomposition of Betula leaf litter compared to other species, with support for species differences coming from all three measures of decomposition. Mixing effects were less consistent among the measures, with negative mixing effects shown only for mass loss. In contrast, there were few species differences or mixing effects for root decomposition. Overall, we attribute longer-term litter mass loss patterns to patterns created by early decomposition processes in the first winter. We note numerous differences for species patterns between leaf and root decomposition, indicating that conclusions from leaf litter experiments should not be extrapolated to below-ground decomposition. The high decomposition rates of Betula leaf litter aboveground, and relatively similar decomposition rates of multiple species below, suggest a potential for increases in turnover in the fast-decomposing carbon pool of leaves and fine roots as the dominance of deciduous shrubs in the Arctic increases, but this outcome may be tempered by negative litter mixing effects during the early stages of encroachment.


Arctic shrub encroachment; exoenzyme activity; litter decomposition; microbial respiration; mixing effects; moist acidic tundra; root decomposition; winter decomposition


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