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Consequences of biodiversity loss for litter decomposition across biomes



The decomposition of dead organic matter is a major determinant of carbon and nutrient cycling in ecosystems, and of carbon fluxes between the biosphere and the atmosphere1,2,3. Decomposition is driven by a vast diversity of organisms that are structured in complex food webs2,4. Identifying the mechanisms underlying the effects of biodiversity on decomposition is critical4,5,6 given the rapid loss of species worldwide and the effects of this loss on human well-being7,8,9. Yet despite comprehensive syntheses of studies on how biodiversity affects litter decomposition4,5,6,10, key questions remain, including when, where and how biodiversity has a role and whether general patterns and mechanisms occur across ecosystems and different functional types of organism4,9,10,11,12. Here, in field experiments across five terrestrial and aquatic locations, ranging from the subarctic to the tropics, we show that reducing the functional diversity of decomposer organisms and plant litter types slowed the cycling of litter carbon and nitrogen. Moreover, we found evidence of nitrogen transfer from the litter of nitrogen-fixing plants to that of rapidly decomposing plants, but not between other plant functional types, highlighting that specific interactions in litter mixtures control carbon and nitrogen cycling during decomposition. The emergence of this general mechanism and the coherence of patterns across contrasting terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems suggest that biodiversity loss has consistent consequences for litter decomposition and the cycling of major elements on broad spatial scales.

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Figure 1: Net diversity, complementarity and selection effects of plant litter mixtures on C loss.
Figure 2: Effect of decomposer community completeness on litter C and N loss.
Figure 3: Relative change in the total amount of litter N.


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We thank A. Lecerf and P. García-Palacios for comments on the manuscript. We are grateful to numerous technicians in Montpellier (France) for building field microcosms, in Dübendorf (Switzerland) for water chemical analyses, and in Dübendorf and Göttingen (Germany) for grinding litter samples. We also thank M. Schindler for assistance, B. Buatois, R. Leclerc, P. Schevin and L. Sonié for analyses performed at the Plate-Forme d’Analyses Chimiques en Ecologie, LabEx CeMEB (France), G. Larocque for help with R code and our many colleagues at the field sites and research institutes for their support in various ways. This study is part of the BioCycle research project funded by the European Science Foundation (ESF) as part of its EUROCORES programme EuroDIVERSITY. BioCycle has been endorsed by DIVERSITAS as contributing towards their scientific research priorities in biodiversity science.

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Authors and Affiliations



All authors contributed to the experimental design, data acquisition and revision of the final manuscript. Statistical analyses were performed by I.T.H., B.S., J.V.R. and B.G.M., and the manuscript was written by I.T.H., S.H. and M.O.G.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Stephan Hättenschwiler.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Net diversity, complementarity and selection effects of plant litter mixtures on N loss.

The net diversity effect is the deviation from the expected mean based on N loss measured from litter consisting of single species. The blue and brown circles show the mean effects (±s.e.m.) on N loss from litter mixtures in forest streams and on forest floors, respectively, in subarctic (SUB), boreal (BOR), temperate (TEM), Mediterranean (MED) and tropical (TRO) locations. Each circle to the right of the dashed lines shows the mean effect per ecosystem type (that is, aquatic versus terrestrial), as calculated across the three types of decomposer communities (n = 165 litter mixtures per location and ecosystem type; see Extended Data Table 3 for statistical analyses). The circles to the left of the dashed lines show the overall mean across all locations (n = 825 litter mixtures per ecosystem type).

Extended Data Table 1 Characteristics of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems at five widely dispersed locations
Extended Data Table 2 Plant functional types, species identity and litter quality traits
Extended Data Table 3 Results of analyses of variance testing for the net diversity effect (NE), complementarity effect (CE) and selection effect (SE) on C loss (top) and N loss (bottom) from decomposing leaf litter*
Extended Data Table 4 Characteristics of stream macroinvertebrate communities at the five tested locations*
Extended Data Table 5 Full model output of the relative contributions of variance associated with diversity and sites to explain C and N loss
Extended Data Table 6 Characteristics of soil fauna communities at the five tested locations*
Extended Data Table 7 Analysis of variance testing for effects on total litter C loss (top) and N loss (bottom)
Extended Data Table 8 Analysis of variance testing for the proportional change in total litter N content
Extended Data Table 9 Experimental duration and richness of naturally occurring local litter species in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems at each of five widely dispersed locations

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Handa, I., Aerts, R., Berendse, F. et al. Consequences of biodiversity loss for litter decomposition across biomes. Nature 509, 218–221 (2014).

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