The role of litter quality feedbacks in terrestrial nitrogen and Phosphorus Cycling

Johannes M.H. Knops, David A. Wedin, Shahid Naeem

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Citations (Scopus)


Many studies in ecosystem ecology argue for strong control of litter quality over nitrogen (N) cycling. We developed a model for temperate grasslands to test the importance of litter quality in decomposition for N and phosphorus (P) cycling based on the following premises. First, terrestrial N and P cycling differ fundamentally because N is a structural component of the soil organic matter (SOM), whereas P is not. Secondly, SOM has a much lower C:N ratio than litter inputs. Thirdly, litter decomposition follows an exponential decay with 20% of the original litter mass turning into SOM. Fourth, litter N concentration shows an exponential increase during decomposition, whereas P does not change and is released proportionally to the litter mass. Based on these premises we constructed a model which shows that 0.75% N is a critical initial litter concentration at which concentration all N is immobilized and no N is released from the litter. Thus at 0.75% N of the litter all net N mineralization is through SOM decomposition and not through litter decomposition. Phosphorus, in contrast, is primarily released in the early stages of litter decomposition. Empirical tests of these model predictions support the applicability of the model to temperate grassland ecosystems. This model predicts that N mineralization from SOM is much more important than mineralization from litter and that plant litter quality differences alone cannot explain ecosystem N cycling patterns. Phosphorus, in contrast, does cycle largely through litter decomposition, and plant litter quality differences are the dominant factor in determining ecosystem P cycling feedbacks.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)14-25
Number of pages12
JournalOpen Ecology Journal
Publication statusPublished - 2010
Externally publishedYes


  • Decomposition
  • Immobilization
  • Mineralization
  • Nitrogen cycling
  • Phosphorus cycling
  • Soil organic matter

Cite this