Increasing Red Maple Leaf Litter Alters Decomposition Rates and Nitrogen Cycling in Historically Oak-Dominated Forests of the Eastern U.S.

H. D. Alexander, M. A. Arthur

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

45 Scopus citations


Without canopy-opening fire disturbances, shade-tolerant, fire-sensitive species like red maple (Acer rubrum L.) proliferate in many historically oak-dominated forests of the eastern U.S. Here, we evaluate potential implications of increased red maple dominance in upland oak forests of Kentucky on rates of leaf litter decomposition and nitrogen (N) cycling. Over 5 years, we evaluated mass loss of leaf litter and changes in total N and carbon (C) within six leaf litter treatments comprised of scarlet oak, chestnut oak, and red maple, and three mixed treatments of increasing red maple contribution to the leaf litter pool (25, 50, and 75% red maple). Over a 1.5-year period, we conducted a plot-level leaf litter manipulation study using the same treatments plus a control and assessed changes in net nitrification, ammonification, and N mineralization within leaf litter and upper (0–5 cm depth) mineral soil horizons. Red maple leaf litter contained more “fast” decomposing material and initially lost mass faster than either oak species. All litter treatments immobilized N during initial stages of decomposition, but the degree of immobilization decreased with decreasing red maple contribution. The leaf litter plot-level experiment confirmed slower N mineralization rates for red maple only plots compared to chestnut oak plots. As red maple increases, initial leaf litter decomposition rates will increase, leading to lower fuel loads and more N immobilization from the surrounding environment. These changes may reduce forest flammability and resource availability and promote red maple expansion and thereby the “mesophication” of eastern forests of the U.S.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1371-1383
Number of pages13
Issue number8
StatePublished - Dec 2014

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2014, Springer Science+Business Media New York.


  • decomposition
  • fire suppression
  • immobilization
  • leaf litter
  • mesophication
  • nitrogen
  • oak
  • red maple

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Ecology


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