Effects of damage to living plants on leaf litter quality

Stuart Findlay, Margaret Carreiro, Vera Krischik, Clive G. Jones

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

147 Scopus citations


The leaves of plants in nature are commonly subjected to damage from a wide variety of agents, including herbivory, air pollutants, and simple physical damage. Despite the attention paid to damage effects on living plants, the potential effects on the quality of litter derived from damaged leaves has not been considered. We used controlled laboratory assays of decomposition to show that both ozone (0.2 mL/m3, 4 h) and mite damage, but not ultraviolet radiation (UV-B) exposure, to living leaves of cottonwood plants resulted in a decrease in decomposition rate of litter derived from damaged leaves. Decomposition rates were ≈50% slower for litter from damaged plants, and there was a twofold increase in the refractory fraction. Contrary to expectation, there was a negative relationship between rate of decomposition and litter nitrogen content. Our finding of slow decomposition of high-nitrogen litter is explained by a general mechanism whereby cellular damage causes increases in complex phenolic material. Such materials can lead to reductions in decomposition and binding of available nitrogen. We suggest that this mechanism can translate a common occurrence, damage by a diversity of processes, into long-term and possibly large-scale alterations in detritus processing.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)269-275
Number of pages7
JournalEcological Applications
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1996

Bibliographical note

Copyright 2017 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • Decomposition
  • Leaf damage
  • Leaf litter
  • Ozone
  • Phenolics
  • Populus deltoides
  • Ultraviolet-B


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