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How well do plant functional traits and leaf-litter traits predict rates of litter decomposition? Zukswert, Jenna Michelle


Foliar functional traits have been shown to strongly co-vary with each other and with rates of litter decomposition, demonstrating an “after-life effect” of foliar traits on ecosystem processes. Leaf-litter traits are often used to indicate substrate quality in decomposition studies. Chemical traits have been studied more extensively in the context of decomposition than physical traits such as specific leaf area (SLA) and leaf toughness, which impart information on litter structure and decomposer access. I investigated relationships among foliar and litter traits, and between traits and early mass-loss, in 14 plant species native to British Columbia. Both physical and chemical traits were measured in foliage and leaf litter of each species. Foliar traits novel to this kind of study include cuticle thickness and distance to lumen (DTL); novel litter traits include leaching loss and water uptake after 2 and 24 hours. Decomposition, as net proportion of mass lost over time, was measured in litterbags installed in a temperate rain forest at the University of British Columbia Farm in Vancouver. Mass loss was divided into two phases: Phase I from 0 to 3 months, and Phase II from 3 to 12 months. Foliar traits co-varied in ways predicted by the leaf economics spectrum hypothesis, and litter traits similarly co-varied. Trait-based relationships among species differed when using foliar traits and using litter traits, suggesting that the same traits measured in foliar and litter impart different meaning in the context of decomposition. Phase I was best predicted by leaching loss and litter traits, suggesting that leaching dominates Phase I, and Phase II was best predicted by foliar functional traits such as leaf dry matter content and nitrogen that relate to relative mesophyll abundance, suggesting that decomposer activity dominates Phase II. Physical traits predicted mass loss as well or better than chemical traits, and using both types of traits in correlative studies may provide insights into the processes that underlie litter decomposition.

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