Nutrient-specific solubility patterns of leaf litter across 41 lowland tropical woody species

Laura A. Schreeg, Michelle C. Mack, Benjamin L. Turner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

87 Scopus citations


Leaching is a mechanism for the release of nutrients from litter or senesced leaves that can drive interactions among plants, microbes, and soil. Although leaching is well established in conceptual models of litter decomposition, potential nutrient solubility of mineral elements from recently senesced litter has seldom been quantified. Using a standardized extraction (1:50 litter-to-water ratio and four-hour extraction) and recently senesced leaf litter of 41 tropical tree and liana species, we investigated how solubility varies among elements, and whether the solubility of elements could be predicted by litter traits (e.g., lignin, total element concentrations). In addition, we investigated nutrient forms (i.e., inorganic and organic) and ratios in leachate. Water-soluble elements per unit litter mass were strongly predicted by total initial litter element concentrations for potassium (K; r2 = 0.79), sodium (Na; r2 = 0.51) and phosphorus (P; r2 = 0.66), while a significant but weaker positive relationship was found for nitrogen (N; r2 = 0.36). There was no significant relationship for carbon (C) or calcium (Ca). Element-specific solubility varied markedly. On average 100% of total K, 35% of total P, 28% of total Na, 5% of total N, 4% of total Ca, and 3% of total C were soluble. For soluble P, 90% was inorganic orthophosphate. The high solubility of K, Na, and P as inorganic orthophosphate suggests that these nutrients can become rapidly available to litter microbes with no metabolic cost. Few common predictors of decomposition rates were correlated with element solubility, although soluble C (milligrams per gram of litter) was negatively related to lignin content (r2 = 0.19; P , 0.004). Solubility of elements was linked within a species: when a species ranked high in the soluble fraction of one element, it also ranked high in the solubility of other elements. Overall nutrient-specific patterns of solubility from recently senesced litter emphasize that litter elements cannot be treated equally in our conceptual and empirical models of decomposition. The relatively high potential solubility of P as orthophosphate from fresh litter advances our understanding of ecological stoichiometric ratios and nutrient bioavailability in tropical forests.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)94-105
Number of pages12
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • Barro Colorado Island
  • Decomposition
  • Leaching
  • Litter traits
  • Nutrient cycling
  • Panama
  • Terrestrial ecosystems

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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