Factors controlling decomposition rates of fine root litter in temperate forests and grasslands

Emily F. Solly, Ingo Schöning, Steffen Boch, Ellen Kandeler, Sven Marhan, Beate Michalzik, Jörg Müller, Jakob Zscheischler, Susan E. Trumbore, Marion Schrumpf

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Background and aims: Fine root decomposition contributes significantly to element cycling in terrestrial ecosystems. However, studies on root decomposition rates and on the factors that potentially influence them are fewer than those on leaf litter decomposition. To study the effects of region and land use intensity on fine root decomposition, we established a large scale study in three German regions with different climate regimes and soil properties. Methods In 150 forest and 150 grassland sites we deployed litterbags (100 μm mesh size) with standardized litter consisting of fine roots from European beech in forests and from a lowland mesophilous hay meadow in grasslands. In the central study region, we compared decomposition rates of this standardized litter with root litter collected on-site to separate the effect of litter quality from environmental factors. Results: Standardized herbaceous roots in grassland soils decomposed on average significantly faster (24 ± 6 % mass loss after 12 months, mean ± SD) than beech roots in forest soils (12 ± 4 %; p < 0.001). Fine root decomposition varied among the three study regions. Land use intensity, in particular N addition, decreased fine root decomposition in grasslands. The initial lignin:N ratio explained 15 % of the variance in grasslands and 11 % in forests. Soil moisture, soil temperature, and C:N ratios of soils together explained 34 % of the variance of the fine root mass loss in grasslands, and 24 % in forests. Conclusions: Grasslands, which have higher fine root biomass and root turnover compared to forests, also have higher rates of root decomposition. Our results further show that at the regional scale fine root decomposition is influenced by environmental variables such as soil moisture, soil temperature and soil nutrient content. Additional variation is explained by root litter quality.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)203-218
Number of pages16
JournalPlant and Soil
Issue number1-2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • Decomposition
  • Fine roots
  • Land use intensity
  • Lignin:N ratio
  • Temperate ecosystems


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