Single-pool exponential decomposition models: Potential pitfalls in their use in ecological studies

E. Carol Adair, Sarah E. Hobbie, Russell K. Hobbie

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

58 Scopus citations


The importance of litter decomposition to carbon and nutrient cycling has motivated substantial research. Commonly, researchers fit a single-pool negative exponential model to data to estimate a decomposition rate (k). We review recent decomposition research, use data simulations, and analyze real data to show that this practice has several potential pitfalls. Specifically, two common decisions regarding model form (how to model initial mass) and data transformation (log-transformed vs. untransformed data) can lead to erroneous estimates of k. Allowing initial mass to differ from its true, measured value resulted in substantial over- or underestimation of k. Log-transforming data to estimate k using linear regression led to inaccurate estimates unless errors were lognormally distributed, while nonlinear regression of untransformed data accurately estimated k regardless of error structure. Therefore, we recommend fixing initial mass at the measured value and estimating k with nonlinear regression (untransformed data) unless errors are demonstrably lognormal. If data are log-transformed for linear regression, zero values should be treated as missing data; replacing zero values with an arbitrarily small value yielded poor k estimates. These recommendations will lead to more accurate k estimates and allow cross-study comparison of k values, increasing understanding of this important ecosystem, process.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1225-1236
Number of pages12
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2010


  • Data transformation
  • Decomposition rate
  • Litterbag
  • Model fitting
  • Regression


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