Litter decomposition in moist acidic and non-acidic tundra with different glacial histories

Sarah E Hobbie, Laura Gough

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

129 Scopus citations


Plant species composition is a potentially important source of variation in soil processes, including decomposition rates. We compared litter decomposition in two common and compositionally distinct tundra vegetation types in the northern foothills of the Brooks Range, Alaska: moist acidic tundra (soil pH 3-4), which occurs primarily on older landscapes, and moist non-acidic tundra (soil pH 6-7), which occurs primarily on landscapes with a more recent history of glaciation and has higher graminoid and forb abundance and lower woody shrub abundance than acidic tundra. To separate the influence of plant community composition from that of the soil environment, we decomposed the same nine substrates at a moist acidic and a moist non-acidic site located less than 2 km apart. Substrates included leaf litter of the dominant species in each growth form (graminoid, deciduous shrub, evergreen shrub, forb, moss) as well as woody stems of the deciduous shrub Betula nana. Then, we estimated above-ground community-level decomposition by weighting the decay rate of each species in the community by its proportional contribution to overall above-ground net primary production (ANPP). In contrast to our expectations, community-level decomposition rates estimated using the site-average decay rate for each substrate were similar between the two sites, likely because growth forms differed little in their leaf litter decay. By contrast, when site-specific decay rates were used to estimate community-level decomposition, it was nearly twice as fast at the older, moist acidic tundra site because most substrates decayed faster at that site, indicating a more favorable environment for decomposition in acidic tundra. Site differences in soil moisture and temperature could not explain site differences in decomposition. However, higher soil N availability at the moist acidic tundra may have contributed to faster decomposition since, in a separate experiment, fertilization with N stimulated decomposition of a common substrate at both sites. In addition, lower pH in acidic tundra may promote greater abundance of soil fungi, perhaps explaining faster decomposition rates at that site. In summary, the large differences in plant species composition between moist acidic and non-acidic tundra are likely to not contribute to site differences in decomposition. Nevertheless, decomposition is much more rapid in moist acidic tundra. Thus, landscape age and associated differences in soil pH and nutrient availability are important sources of variation in decomposition rate in upland Alaskan tundra.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)113-124
Number of pages12
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jun 2004

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Acknowledgements We thank Tiffany Miley, Angela Moline, Chinelo Njaka, and Marissa Weiss for assistance in the field or laboratory and Merritt Turetsky and two anonymous reviewers for comments on the manuscript. We also thank Stan Harpole and Janneke HilleRisLambers for useful discussion. We are grateful to the Toolik Lake Field Research Station and the Arctic LTER for logistic support. This research was supported by a collaborative grant from the National Science Foundation (OPP-9902695 to S. E. Hobbie and OPP-9902721 to L. Gough). Fertilizer manipulations were initiated and maintained with support from the National Science Foundation to the Arctic LTER (DEB-9810222).


  • Alaska
  • Arctic
  • Fertilization
  • Landscape age pH


Dive into the research topics of 'Litter decomposition in moist acidic and non-acidic tundra with different glacial histories'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this