Our basic understanding of plant litter decomposition informs the assumptions underlying widely applied soil biogeochemical models, including those embedded in Earth system models. Confidence in projected carbon cycle–climate feedbacks therefore depends on accurate knowledge about the controls regulating the rate at which plant biomass is decomposed into products such as CO2. Here we test underlying assumptions of the dominant conceptual model of litter decomposition. The model posits that a primary control on the rate of decomposition at regional to global scales is climate (temperature and moisture), with the controlling effects of decomposers negligible at such broad spatial scales. Using a regional-scale litter decomposition experiment at six sites spanning from northern Sweden to southern France—and capturing both within and among site variation in putative controls—we find that contrary to predictions from the hierarchical model, decomposer (microbial) biomass strongly regulates decomposition at regional scales. Furthermore, the size of the microbial biomass dictates the absolute change in decomposition rates with changing climate variables. Our findings suggest the need for revision of the hierarchical model, with decomposers acting as both local- and broad-scale controls on litter decomposition rates, necessitating their explicit consideration in global biogeochemical models.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Additional information

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.


  1. 1.

    Bradford, M. A., Berg, B., Maynard, D. S., Wieder, W. R. & Wood, S. A. Understanding the dominant controls on litter decomposition. J. Ecol. 104, 229–238 (2016).

  2. 2.

    Cornwell, W. K. et al. Plant species traits are the predominant control on litter decomposition rates within biomes worldwide. Ecol. Lett. 11, 1065–1071 (2008).

  3. 3.

    Freschet, G. T., Aerts, R. & Cornelissen, J. H. C. A plant economics spectrum of litter decomposability. Funct. Ecol. 26, 56–65 (2012).

  4. 4.

    Makkonen, M. et al. Highly consistent effects of plant litter identity and functional traits on decomposition across a latitudinal gradient. Ecol. Lett. 15, 1033–1041 (2012).

  5. 5.

    Swift, M. J., Heal, O. W. & Anderson, J. M. Decomposition in Terrestrial Ecosystems Studies in Ecology Vol. 5 (Blackwell Scientific, Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 1979).

  6. 6.

    Buchkowski, R. W., Bradford, M. A., Grandy, A. S., Schmitz, O. J. & Wieder, W. R. Applying population and community ecology theory to advance understanding of belowground biogeochemistry. Ecol. Lett. 20, 231–245 (2017).

  7. 7.

    Sulman, B. N., Phillips, R. P., Oishi, A. C., Shevliakova, E. & Pacala, S. W. Microbe-driven turnover offsets mineral-mediated storage of soil carbon under elevated CO2. Nat. Clim. Change 4, 1099–1102 (2014).

  8. 8.

    Tang, J. & Riley, W. J. Weaker soil carbon–climate feedbacks resulting from microbial and abiotic interactions. Nat. Clim. Change 5, 56–60 (2015).

  9. 9.

    Wieder, W. R., Bonan, G. B. & Allison, S. D. Global soil carbon projections are improved by modelling microbial processes. Nat. Clim. Change 3, 909–912 (2013).

  10. 10.

    Levin, S. A. The problem of pattern and scale in ecology. Ecology 73, 1943–1967 (1992).

  11. 11.

    Lauenroth, W. K. & Sala, O. E. Long-term forage production of North American shortgrass steppe. Ecol. Appl. 2, 397–403 (1992).

  12. 12.

    Berg, B. et al. Litter mass loss rates in pine forests of Europe and Eastern United States: some relationships with climate and litter quality. Biogeochemistry 20, 127–159 (1993).

  13. 13.

    Harmon, M. E. et al. Long-term patterns of mass loss during the decomposition of leaf and fine root litter: an intersite comparison. Glob. Change Biol. 15, 1320–1338 (2009).

  14. 14.

    Moore, T. R. et al. Litter decomposition rates in Canadian forests. Glob. Change Biol. 5, 75–82 (1999).

  15. 15.

    Wall, D. H. et al. Global decomposition experiment shows soil animal impacts on decomposition are climate-dependent. Glob. Change Biol. 14, 2661–2677 (2008).

  16. 16.

    Bonan, G. B., Hartman, M. D., Parton, W. J. & Wieder, W. R. Evaluating litter decomposition in earth system models with long-term litterbag experiments: an example using the Community Land Model version 4 (CLM4). Glob. Change Biol. 19, 957–974 (2013).

  17. 17.

    Averill, C., Waring, B. G. & Hawkes, C. V. Historical precipitation predictably alters the shape and magnitude of microbial functional response to soil moisture. Glob. Change Biol. 5, 1957–1964 (2016).

  18. 18.

    Strickland, M. S., Keiser, A. D. & Bradford, M. A. Climate history shapes contemporary leaf litter decomposition. Biogeochemistry 122, 165–174 (2015).

  19. 19.

    Fierer, N. et al. Cross-biome metagenomic analyses of soil microbial communities and their functional attributes. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 109, 21390–21395 (2012).

  20. 20.

    Evans, S. E. & Wallenstein, M. D. Climate change alters ecological strategies of soil bacteria. Ecol. Lett. 17, 155–164 (2014).

  21. 21.

    Loescher, H., Ayres, E., Duffy, P., Luo, H. & Brunke, M. Spatial variation in soil properties among North American ecosystems and guidelines for sampling designs. PLoS ONE 9, e83216 (2014).

  22. 22.

    Scherrer, D. & Körner, C. Infra-red thermometry of alpine landscapes challenges climatic warming projections. Glob. Change Biol. 16, 2602–2613 (2010).

  23. 23.

    Meentemeyer, V. Macroclimate and lignin control of litter decomposition rates. Ecology 59, 465–472 (1978).

  24. 24.

    García-Palacios, P., Maestre, F. T., Kattge, J. & Wall, D. H. Climate and litter quality differently modulate the effects of soil fauna on litter decomposition across biomes. Ecol. Lett. 16, 1045–1053 (2013).

  25. 25.

    Tenney, F. G. & Waksman, S. A. Composition of natural organic materials and their decomposition in the soil: IV. The nature and rapidity of decomposition of the various organic complexes in different plant materials, under aerobic conditions. Soil Science 28, 55–84 (1929).

  26. 26.

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

  27. 27.

    Powers, J. S. et al. Decomposition in tropical forests: a pan-tropical study of the effects of litter type, litter placement and mesofaunal exclusion across a precipitation gradient. J. Ecol. 97, 801–811 (2009).

  28. 28.

    Crowther, T. W. et al. Biotic interactions mediate soil microbial feedbacks to climate change. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 112, 7033–7038 (2015).

  29. 29.

    Lawrence, C. R., Neff, J. C. & Schimel, J. P. Does adding microbial mechanisms of decomposition improve soil organic matter models? A comparison of four models using data from a pulsed rewetting experiment. Soil Biol. Biochem. 41, 1923–1934 (2009).

  30. 30.

    Hall, E. et al. Understanding how microbiomes influence the systems they inhabit: insight from ecosystem ecology. Preprint at https://doi.org/10.1101/065128 (2016).

  31. 31.

    Aerts, R. Climate, leaf litter chemistry and leaf litter decomposition in terrestrial ecosystems: a triangular relationship. Oikos 79, 439–449 (1997).

  32. 32.

    Allison, S. D., Wallenstein, M. D. & Bradford, M. A. Soil-carbon response to warming dependent on microbial physiology. Nat. Geosci. 3, 336–340 (2010).

  33. 33.

    Crowther, T. W. et al. Environmental stress response limits microbial necromass contributions to soil organic carbon. Soil Biol. Biochem. 85, 153–161 (2015).

  34. 34.

    Frey, S. D., Lee, J., Melillo, J. M. & Six, J. The temperature response of soil microbial efficiency and its feedback to climate. Nat. Clim. Change 3, 395–398 (2013).

  35. 35.

    Schimel, J. P. & Weintraub, M. N. The implications of exoenzyme activity on microbial carbon and nitrogen limitation in soil: a theorectical model. Soil Biol. Biochem. 35, 549–563 (2003).

  36. 36.

    Buchkowski, R. W., Schmitz, O. J. & Bradford, M. A. Microbial stoichiometry overrides biomass as a regulator of soil carbon and nitrogen cycling. Ecology 96, 1139–1149 (2015).

  37. 37.

    Adair, E. C. et al. Simple three-pool model accurately describes patterns of long-term litter decomposition in diverse climates. Glob. Change Biol. 14, 2636–2660 (2008).

  38. 38.

    Currie, W. S. et al. Cross-biome transplants of plant litter show decomposition models extend to a broader climatic range but lose predictability at the decadal time scale. Glob. Change Biol. 16, 1744–1761 (2010).

  39. 39.

    Smith, V. C. & Bradford, M. A. Litter quality impacts on grassland litter decomposition are differently dependent on soil fauna across time. Appl. Soil Ecol. 24, 197–203 (2003).

  40. 40.

    Bradford, M. A., Tordoff, G. M., Eggers, T., Jones, T. H. & Newington, J. E. Microbiota, fauna, and mesh size interactions in litter decomposition. Oikos 99, 317–323 (2002).

  41. 41.

    Bokhorst, S. & Wardle, D. A. Microclimate within litter bags of different mesh size: implications for the ‘arthropod effect’ on litter decomposition. Soil Biol. Biochem. 58, 147–152 (2013).

  42. 42.

    Bradford, M. A. et al. Climate fails to predict wood decomposition at regional scales. Nat. Clim. Change 4, 625–630 (2014).

  43. 43.

    Keiser, A. D., Knoepp, J. D. & Bradford, M. A. Disturbance decouples biogeochemical cycles across forests of the southeastern US. Ecosystems 19, 50–61 (2016).

  44. 44.

    Waring, B., Adams, R., Branco, S. & Powers, J. S. Scale-dependent variation in nitrogen cycling and soil fungal communities along gradients of forest composition and age in regenerating tropical dry forests. New Phytol. 209, 845–854 (2016).

  45. 45.

    Schmitz, O. J. Resolving Ecosystem Complexity (Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, 2010).

  46. 46.

    Oakes, M. J. Commentary: individual, ecological and multilevel fallacies. Int. J. Epidemiol. 38, 361–368 (2009).

  47. 47.

    Robinson, W. S. Ecological correlations and the behavior of individuals. Am. Sociol. Rev. 15, 351–357 (1950).

  48. 48.

    Schuessler, A. A. Ecological inference. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 96, 10578–10581 (1999).

  49. 49.

    Gelman, A., Shor, B., Bafumi, J. & Park, D. Rich state, poor state, red state, blue state: what’s the matter with Connecticut? Quart. J. Polit. Sci. 2, 345–367 (2008).

  50. 50.

    Gelman, A. & Hill, J. Data Analysis using Regression and Multilevel/Hierarchical Models (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, 2007).

  51. 51.

    Rousk, J. Biomass or growth? How to measure soil food webs to understand structure and function. Soil Biol. Biochem. 102, 45–47 (2016).

  52. 52.

    Allison, S. D. et al. Microbial abundance and composition influence litter decomposition response to environmental change. Ecology 94, 714–725 (2013).

  53. 53.

    Anderson, J. P. E. & Domsch, K. H. A physiological method for the quantitative measurement of microbial biomass in soils. Soil Biol. Biochem. 10, 215–221 (1978).

  54. 54.

    Fierer, N., Schimel, J. P. & Holden, P. A. Influence of drying–rewetting frequency on soil bacterial community structure. Microb. Ecol. 45, 63–71 (2003).

  55. 55.

    Robertson, G. P. et al. in Standard Soil Methods for Long-Term Ecological Research (eds Robertson, G. P., Coleman, D. C., Bledsoe, C. S. & Sollins, P.) 258–271 (Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 1999).

  56. 56.

    Poorter, H. & Villar, R. in Plant Resource Allocation (eds Bazzaz, F. A. & Grace, J.) 39–72 (Academic Press, San Diego, 1997).

  57. 57.

    Hendry, G. A. F. & Grime, J. P. Methods in Comparative Plant Ecology (Chapman & Hall, London, 1993).

  58. 58.

    Cornelissen, J. H. C. et al. Foliar pH as a new plant trait: can it explain variation in foliar chemistry and carbon cycling processes among subarctic plant species and types? Oecologia 147, 315–326 (2006).

  59. 59.

    Hobbs, N. T., Andren, H., Persson, J., Aronsson, M. & Chapron, G. Native predators reduce harvest of reindeer by Sámi pastoralists. Ecol. Appl. 22, 1640–1654 (2012).

  60. 60.

    Bolker, B. M. et al. Generalized linear mixed models: a practical guide for ecology and evolution. Trends Ecol. Evol. 24, 127–135 (2009).

  61. 61.

    Fierer, N., Craine, J. M., McLauchlan, K. & Schimel, J. P. Litter quality and the temperature sensitivity of decomposition. Ecology 86, 320–326 (2005).

  62. 62.

    Conant, R. T. et al. Temperature and soil organic matter decomposition rates – synthesis of current knowledge and a way forward. Glob. Change Biol. 17, 3392–3404 (2011).

  63. 63.

    Smith, V. C. & Bradford, M. A. Do non-additive effects on decomposition in litter-mix experiments result from differences in resource quality between litters? Oikos 102, 235–242 (2003).

  64. 64.

    Gelman, A. Scaling regression inputs by dividing by two standard deviations. Stat. Med. 27, 2865–2873 (2008).

  65. 65.

    Baayen, R. H., Davidson, D. J. & Bates, D. M. Mixed-effects modeling with crossed random effects for subjects and items. J. Mem. Lang. 59, 390–412 (2008).

  66. 66.

    Nakagawa, S. & Schielzeth, H. A general and simple method for obtaining R 2 from generalized linear mixed-effects models. Methods Ecol. Evol. 4, 133–142 (2013).

Download references


We thank R. Pas and M. Hundscheid for lab assistance, and the Röbäcksdalen field station staff for providing land and logistic support at the Umeå site. Research was supported by grants to M.A.B. from the US National Science Foundation (DEB-1457614), The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (Visiting Professors Programme), and the Netherlands Production Ecology & Resource Conservation Programme for Visiting Scientists. G.F.V. was supported by an NWO-VENI from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (863.14.013). M.M.-F. and W.H.v.d.P. were supported by a European Research Council grant (ERC-Adv 260-55290), and G.T.F. by grant EC2CO-Multivers. We thank the Bradford lab group for comments on an earlier version of the manuscript.

Author information

Author notes

  1. Mark A. Bradford and G. F. Veen contributed equally to the work.


  1. School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University, New Haven, CT, 06511, USA

    • Mark A. Bradford
    •  & Daniel S. Maynard
  2. Department of Terrestrial Ecology, Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW), 6700 AB, Wageningen, The Netherlands

    • Mark A. Bradford
    • , G. F. (Ciska) Veen
    • , Ella M. Bradford
    • , Marta Manrubia-Freixa
    •  & Wim H. van der Putten
  3. UMR 6553 ECOBIO – OSUR, University Rennes I – CNRS, Campus Beaulieu, Avenue du Gl Leclerc, 35042, Rennes Cedex, France

    • Anne Bonis
  4. The Rubenstein School, University of Vermont, 81 Carrigan Drive, Burlington, VT, 05405, USA

    • Aimee T. Classen
    •  & Gregory S. Newman
  5. The Center for Macroecology, Evolution and Climate, Natural History Museum of Denmark, University of Copenhagen, Universitetsparken 15, 2100, Copenhagen Ø, Denmark

    • Aimee T. Classen
    •  & Gregory S. Newman
  6. Systems Ecology, Department of Ecological Science, Vrije Universiteit, De Boelelaan 1085, 1081 HV, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

    • J. Hans C. Cornelissen
    •  & Richard S. P. Logtestijn
  7. Institute of Integrative Biology, ETH Zurich, Univeritätstrasse 16, 8006, Zürich, Switzerland

    • Thomas. W. Crowther
  8. School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Manchester, Manchester, M13 9PT, UK

    • Jonathan R. De Long
  9. Centre d’Ecologie Fonctionnelle et Evolutive, UMR 5175 (CNRS – Université de Montpellier – Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier – EPHE), 1919 Route de Mende, Montpellier, 34293, France

    • Gregoire T. Freschet
  10. Department of Forest Ecology and Management, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, 901-83, Umeå, Sweden

    • Paul Kardol
    •  & David A. Wardle
  11. Department of Ecology, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, PO Box 7044, 750 07, Uppsala, Sweden

    • Maria Viketoft
  12. Asian School of the Environment, Nanyang Technological University, 50 Nanyang Avenue, Singapore, 639798, Singapore

    • David A. Wardle
  13. Climate and Global Dynamics Laboratory, National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, CO, 80307, USA

    • William R. Wieder
  14. The Nature Conservancy, Arlington, VA, USA

    • Stephen A. Wood
  15. Laboratory of Nematology, Wageningen University, PO Box 8123, 6700 ES, Wageningen, The Netherlands

    • Wim H. van der Putten


  1. Search for Mark A. Bradford in:

  2. Search for G. F. (Ciska) Veen in:

  3. Search for Anne Bonis in:

  4. Search for Ella M. Bradford in:

  5. Search for Aimee T. Classen in:

  6. Search for J. Hans C. Cornelissen in:

  7. Search for Thomas. W. Crowther in:

  8. Search for Jonathan R. De Long in:

  9. Search for Gregoire T. Freschet in:

  10. Search for Paul Kardol in:

  11. Search for Marta Manrubia-Freixa in:

  12. Search for Daniel S. Maynard in:

  13. Search for Gregory S. Newman in:

  14. Search for Richard S. P. Logtestijn in:

  15. Search for Maria Viketoft in:

  16. Search for David A. Wardle in:

  17. Search for William R. Wieder in:

  18. Search for Stephen A. Wood in:

  19. Search for Wim H. van der Putten in:


M.A.B. and G.F.V. designed the study, co-wrote the manuscript, constructed litterbags and carried out the lab analyses. All authors established, maintained and collected data from the field sites. M.A.B., G.F.V., D.S.M. and S.A.W. analysed data. All authors contributed to data interpretation and writing of the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Mark A. Bradford.

Electronic supplementary material

About this article

Publication history






Further reading