Data from: Plant interactions as biotic drivers of plasticity in leaf litter traits and decomposability of Quercus petraea
Henneron, Ludovic et al. (2017), Data from: Plant interactions as biotic drivers of plasticity in leaf litter traits and decomposability of Quercus petraea, Dryad, Dataset, https://doi.org/10.5061/dryad.s97c1
The importance of plant litter traits and decomposability for nutrient cycling processes and plant community dynamics through plant-litter-soil feedbacks has been largely emphasized. However, the role of biotic interactions as drivers of intraspecific variability in litter traits remains surprisingly little studied. In this study, we used a large-scale, multi-site network of long-term tree removal experiments manipulating the abundance of a foundation tree species, i.e. Quercus petraea, to assess how plant interactions control intraspecific variation in oak leaf litter traits and decomposability. We studied 19 plots across eight experimental sites covering a large gradient of oak abundance, stand age and local abiotic context. Oak leaf litter quality strongly declined with tree removal in early forest successional stage. Litter became poorer in nutrients such as N and Mg and richer in secondary metabolites such as lignin and condensed tannins. This in turn slowed its decomposition. Importantly, litter N loss switched from N release to N immobilization. Variance partitioning indicated that oak abundance explained as much variation in oak leaf litter traits as oak age and twice as much as soil inherent fertility. Confirmatory path analysis revealed that the decline of oak leaf litter quality induced by tree removal was most likely driven by a shift in understory plant species composition. Plasticity of oak leaf litter traits to the shortage of nutrient supply related to the development of understory plants competitors with higher nutrient capture and retention ability could potentially explain this response pattern. Our data also give consistent but weaker support that the decline of oak leaf litter quality could be driven by alleviated competition for light among canopy trees and subsequent enhanced crown exposure to light. Overall, our study provides evidence that biotic factors such as plant interactions are major drivers of plasticity in leaf litter traits and decomposability. This finding contributes to the emerging view that phenotypic plasticity is fundamentally related to biotic interactions for sessile organisms, especially for long-lived and large plant species such as trees. Taking this source of functional diversity into account could help us to better understand plant community dynamics and ecological processes in terrestrial ecosystems.