Litterfall, as an important link between aboveground and belowground processes, plays a key role in forest ecosystems. Here, we test for effects of tree species richness on litter production and litter quality in subtropical forest. The study further encompasses a factorial gradient of secondary succession that resulted from human exploitation. Given that a large percentage of subtropical forests are in secondary successional stages, understanding the role of biodiversity on forest re-growth after disturbance appears critical.
From January 2009 to December 2014, we monitored forest litterfall in 27 Comparative Study Plots that spanned a gradient of tree species richness (3–20 species) and secondary successional ages (~20 to 120 years) in Gutianshan Natural Nature Reserve, Zhejiang Province, China. The experiment is part of the biodiversity–ecosystem functioning research platform ‘BEF-China’. Tree litterfall was collected in monthly intervals using litter traps. Samples were separated into leaf and non-leaf components. Leaf litter was further sorted into dominant and other species. Community level monthly leaf litter C and N contents were analysed through a full year. General linear mixed-effects models were applied to test for effects of tree species richness and successional age on litter quantity and leaf litter C/N.
Litterfall increased with species richness among and within successional age and this effect was consistent across years. Successionally older stands had higher litterfall and this effect was related to increased tree species richness. However, species richness did not change the intra- and inter-annual temporal stability of litterfall. Increasing tree species richness increased leaf litter quality (decreased C/N), while successional age had no effect. Our study indicates that more diverse forest stands produce more leaf litter and that this litter has higher N concentrations, which could promote forest growth through accelerated nutrient re-cycling.