Litter decomposition rates across tropical montane and lowland forests are controlled foremost by climate

Rebecca Ostertag, Carla Restrepo, James W. Dalling, Patrick H. Martin, Iveren Abiem, Shin ichiro Aiba, Esteban Alvarez-Dávila, Roxana Aragón, Michelle Ataroff, Hazel Chapman, Augusta Y. Cueva-Agila, Belen Fadrique, Romina D. Fernández, Grizelle González, Sybil G. Gotsch, Achim Häger, Jürgen Homeier, Carlos Iñiguez-Armijos, Luis Daniel Llambí, Georgianne W. MooreRikke Reese Næsborg, Laura Nohemy Poma López, Patrícia Vieira Pompeu, Jennifer R. Powell, Jorge Andrés Ramírez Correa, Klara Scharnagl, Conrado Tobón, Cameron B. Williams

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


The “hierarchy of factors” hypothesis states that decomposition rates are controlled primarily by climatic, followed by biological and soil variables. Tropical montane forests (TMF) are globally important ecosystems, yet there have been limited efforts to provide a biome-scale characterization of litter decomposition. We designed a common litter decomposition experiment replicated in 23 tropical montane sites across the Americas, Asia, and Africa and combined these results with a previous study of 23 sites in tropical lowland forests (TLF). Specifically, we investigated (1) spatial heterogeneity in decomposition, (2) the relative importance of biological factors that affect leaf and wood decomposition in TMF, and (3) the role of climate in determining leaf litter decomposition rates within and across the TMF and TLF biomes. Litterbags of two mesh sizes containing Laurus nobilis leaves or birchwood popsicle sticks were spatially dispersed and incubated in TMF sites, for 3 and 7 months on the soil surface and at 10–15 cm depth. The within-site replication demonstrated spatial variability in mass loss. Within TMF, litter type was the predominant biological factor influencing decomposition (leaves > wood), with mesh and burial effects playing a minor role. When comparing across TMF and TLF, climate was the predominant control over decomposition, but the Yasso07 global model (based on mean annual temperature and precipitation) only modestly predicted decomposition rate. Differences in controlling factors between biomes suggest that TMF, with their high rates of carbon storage, must be explicitly considered when developing theory and models to elucidate carbon cycling rates in the tropics. Abstract in Spanish is available with online material.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)309-326
Number of pages18
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2022

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 The Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation


  • Climate
  • common litter experiment
  • decomposition coefficient
  • leaves
  • litter arthropods
  • soil depth
  • wood

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


Dive into the research topics of 'Litter decomposition rates across tropical montane and lowland forests are controlled foremost by climate'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this