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Resolving the intricate role of climate in litter decomposition


With approximately 60 Pg of carbon (C) released as CO2 annually, the decomposition of dead organic matter feeds the major terrestrial global CO2 flux to the atmosphere. Macroclimate control over this critical C flux facilitates the parametrization of the C cycle in Earth system models and the understanding of climate change effects on the global C balance. Yet, the long-standing paradigm of climate control was recently challenged by the so far underestimated environmental heterogeneity at local scales, questioning the conceptual framework of thousands of decomposition studies and accuracy of current predictive models. Using three complementary decomposition experiments at a European scale, we showed that macroclimate and litter characteristics largely control plant litter decomposition, reaffirming the role of macroclimate as an integrative decomposition driver through direct environmental control and by influencing co-evolving local plant and decomposer communities. Neglecting this latter indirect effect, commonly used standard litter types overrated micro-environmental control and failed to predict local decomposition of plot-specific litter. Our data help clarify a key question on the regulation of the global C cycle by identifying the relative role of control factors over decomposition and the scales at which they matter and by highlighting sources of confusion in the literature.

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Fig. 1: Conceptual framework and design of the experiments.
Fig. 2: Litter and soil characteristics.
Fig. 3: Dominant drivers of decomposition environment, decomposability and realistic decomposition.
Fig. 4: A priori model of the drivers of realistic decomposition.
Fig. 5: SEM based on the a priori model.
Fig. 6: Bivariate relations between realistic decomposition, decomposition environment, decomposability, macroclimate and litter characteristics.

Data availability

The datasets generated in this study are available from the University of Stirling’s online data repository (

Code availability

The R code used to analyse the datasets of this study is available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.


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We thank the FunDivEUROPE site managers and assistants for assistance with litterbag set-up and collection, S. M. Dawud, L. Vesterdal and B. Muys for data of soil parameters, M. Pollastrini for the LAI data and R. Resmond and A. Jiménez for technical assistance. Chemical analyses were performed at the Plateforme d’Analyses Chimiques en Ecologie technical facilities of the LabEx CeMEB. This research was funded through the FunDivEUROPE research project (FP7 2007–2013) under grant agreement no. 265171.

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Authors and Affiliations



S.H., F.-X.J. and M.S.-L. designed the experiments. S.H. and M.S.-L. acquired the funding. F.-X.J. collected and analysed the decomposition data. F.-X.J. and S.H. led the writing of the manuscript and M.S.-L. contributed to the drafts.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to François-Xavier Joly.

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Nature Ecology & Evolution thanks Cindy Prescott, Xinli Chen and Fuzhong Wu for contributing to the peer review of this work. Peer reviewer reports are available.

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Supplementary Tables 1–3 and Figs. 1 and 2.

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Joly, FX., Scherer-Lorenzen, M. & Hättenschwiler, S. Resolving the intricate role of climate in litter decomposition. Nat Ecol Evol 7, 214–223 (2023).

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