Variation in mass and nutrient concentration of leaf litter across years and sites in a northern hardwood forest

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Leaf litterfall represents an important nutrient flux in forests, but separating leaves by species and collecting fresh litter annually for nutrient analysis is time-consuming and expensive. To quantify the sources of variation in litterfall nutrient estimates and guide optimal allocation of research effort, we analyzed nutrient concentration (5 years) and mass (6 years) of leaf litter for nine tree species in 13 northern hardwood sites. Coefficients of variation (CVs) in nutrient concentration were higher across sites than over time within sites for most elements; phosphorus was especially variable across sites (56% CV). Thus, to estimate litterfall nutrient fluxes accurately in forests of this type, nutrient analyses should be site-specific as well as species-specific but may not need to be repeated annually (CVs over time averaged 17% for calcium, 21% for magnesium, 28% for potassium, and 32% for phosphorus concentration). Total leaf litterfall mass varied considerably from year to year, ranging from 234 to 370 g·m–2 averaged over 13 sites. We recommend that litter collectors be elevated above the ground to avoid oversampling during extreme wind events. Use of species-specific allometric equations, or even basal area, to estimate the species composition of total litter mass may obviate the need to sort litter by species.

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: 1: Department of Forest and Natural Resources Management, State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Syracuse, NY 13210, USA. 2: Department of Forestry, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY 40546, USA.

Publication date: August 31, 2012

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  • Published since 1971, this monthly journal features articles, reviews, notes and commentaries on all aspects of forest science, including biometrics and mensuration, conservation, disturbance, ecology, economics, entomology, fire, genetics, management, operations, pathology, physiology, policy, remote sensing, social science, soil, silviculture, wildlife and wood science, contributed by internationally respected scientists. It also publishes special issues dedicated to a topic of current interest.
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