Leaf litter decomposability is an important effect trait for ecosystem functioning. However, it is unknown how this effect trait evolved through plant history as a leaf 'afterlife' integrator of the evolution of multiple underlying traits upon which adaptive selection must have acted. Did decomposability evolve in a Brownian fashion without any constraints? Was evolution rapid at first and then slowed? Or was there an underlying mean-reverting process that makes the evolution of extreme trait values unlikely? Here, we test the hypothesis that the evolution of decomposability has undergone certain mean-reverting forces due to strong constraints and trade-offs in the leaf traits that have afterlife effects on litter quality to decomposers. In order to test this, we examined the leaf litter decomposability and seven key leaf traits of 48 tree species in the temperate area of China and fitted them to three evolutionary models: Brownian motion model (BM), Early burst model (EB), and Ornstein-Uhlenbeck model (OU). The OU model, which does not allow unlimited trait divergence through time, was the best fit model for leaf litter decomposability and all seven leaf traits. These results support the hypothesis that neither decomposability nor the underlying traits has been able to diverge toward progressively extreme values through evolutionary time. These results have reinforced our understanding of the relationships between leaf litter decomposability and leaf traits in an evolutionary perspective and may be a helpful step toward reconstructing deep-time carbon cycling based on taxonomic composition with more confidence.
Pan, X., Cornelissen, J. H. C., Zhao, W., Liu, G-F., Hu, Y-K., Prinzing, A., ... Cornwell, W. K. (2014). Experimental evidence that the Ornstein-Uhlenbeck model best describes the evolution of leaf litter decomposability. Ecology and Evolution, 4(17), 3339-3349. https://doi.org/10.1002/ece3.1115