Soil moisture and soil-litter mixing effects on surface litter decomposition: A controlled environment assessment

Hanna Lee, Jessica Fitzgerald, Daniel B. Hewins, Rebecca L. McCulley, Steven R. Archer, Thom Rahn, Heather L. Throop

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

92 Scopus citations


Recent studies suggest the long-standing discrepancy between measured and modeled leaf litter decomposition in drylands is, in part, the result of a unique combination of abiotic drivers that include high soil surface temperature and radiant energy levels and soil-litter mixing. Temperature and radiant energy effects on litter decomposition have been widely documented. However, under field conditions in drylands where soil-litter mixing occurs and accelerates decomposition, the mechanisms involved with soil-litter mixing effects are ambiguous. Potential mechanisms may include some combination of enhanced microbial colonization of litter, physical abrasion of litter surfaces, and buffering of litter and its associated decomposers from high temperatures and low moisture conditions. Here, we tested how soil-litter mixing and soil moisture interact to influence rates of litter decomposition in a controlled environment. Foliar litter of two plant species (a grass [. Eragrostis lehmanniana] and a shrub [. Prosopis velutina]) was incubated for 32 weeks in a factorial combination of soil-litter mixing (none, light, and complete) and soil water content (2, 4, 12% water-filled porosity) treatments. Phospholipid fatty acids (PLFAs) were quantified one week into the experiment to evaluate initial microbial colonization. A complementary incubation experiment with simulated rainfall pulses tested the buffering effects of soil-litter mixing on decomposition.Under the laboratory conditions of our experiments, the influence of soil-litter mixing was minimal and primarily confined to changes in PLFAs during the initial stages of decomposition in the constant soil moisture experiment and the oscillating soil moisture conditions of the rainfall pulse experiment. Soil-litter mixing effects on CO2 production, total phospholipid concentrations, and bacterial to total PLFA ratios were observed within the first week, but responses were fairly weak and varied with litter type and soil moisture treatment. Across the entire 32-week incubation experiment, soil moisture had a significant positive effect on mass loss, but soil-litter mixing did not. The lack of strong soil-litter mixing effects on decomposition under the moderate and relatively constant environmental conditions of this study is in contrast to results from field studies and suggests the importance of soil-litter mixing may be magnified when the fluctuations and extremes in temperature, radiant energy and moisture regimes common dryland field settings are in play.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)123-132
Number of pages10
JournalSoil Biology and Biochemistry
StatePublished - May 2014

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was funded by a LANL-NMSU Memorandum of Understanding grant to HLT and TR, NSF DEB 0815808 to HLT, NSF DEB 0814461 to RLM, and NSF DEB 0816162 to SRA. We thank W. van Voorhies for assistance with CO 2 measurement instrumentation; T. Clawson, E. Morrison, N. Nahid, J. Nelson, R. Pardee, J. Smith, and E. Velasco for help with laboratory analyses; K. Predick for providing litter and soils; and three anonymous reviewers for aiding clarity.


  • Drylands
  • Eragrostis lehmanniana
  • PLFA
  • Prosopis velutina
  • Rainfall pulses
  • Soil-Litter incubation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Microbiology
  • Soil Science


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