The Effects of Exotic Grasses on Litter Decomposition in a Hawaiian Woodland: The Importance of Indirect Effects

Michelle C. Mack, Carla M. D'Antonio

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

47 Scopus citations


Exotic grasses and grass-fueled fires have altered plant species composition in the seasonal submontane woodlands of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. These changes have altered both structural and functional aspects of the plant community, which could, in turn, have consequences for litter decomposition and nitrogen (N) dynamics. In grass-invaded unburned woodland, grass removal plots within the woodland, and woodland converted to grassland by fire, we compared whole-system fluxes and the contributions of individual species to annual aboveground fine litterfall and litterfall N, and litter mass and net N loss. We assessed the direct contribution of grass biomass to decomposition and N dynamics, and we determined how grasses affected decomposition processes indirectly via effects on native species and alteration of the litter layer microenvironment. Grasses contributed 35% of the total annual aboveground fine litterfall in the invaded woodland. However, total litterfall mass and N were not different between the invaded woodland and the grass removal treatment because of compensation by the native tree Metrosideros polymorpha, which increased litter production by 37% ± 5% when grasses were removed. The 0.3 g N m-2/y-1 contained in this production increase was equal to the N contained in grass litter. Litter production and litterfall N was lowest in the grassland due to the loss of native litter inputs. Decomposition of litterfall on an area basis was highest in the grass-invaded woodland. We attributed this effect to increased inherent decomposability of native litter in the presence of grasses because (a) the microenvironment of the three vegetation treatments had little effect on decomposition of common litter types and (b) M. polymorpha litter produced in the invaded woodland decomposed faster than that produced in the grass removal plots due to higher lignin concentrations in the latter than in the former. Area-weighted decomposition was lowest in the grassland due to the absence of native litter inputs. Across all treatments, most litter types immobilized N throughout the incubation, and litter net N loss on an area basis was not different among treatments. Our results support the idea that the effects of a plant species or growth form on decomposition cannot be determined in isolation from the rest of the community or from the direct effects of litter quality and quantity alone. In this dry woodland, exotic grasses significantly altered decomposition processes through indirect effects on the quantity and quality of litter produced by native species.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)723-738
Number of pages16
Issue number8
StatePublished - Dec 2003
Externally publishedYes


  • Biological invasion
  • Decomposition
  • Dry woodland
  • Exotic grasses
  • Litter production
  • Litter quality
  • Microclimate
  • Nitrogen dynamics
  • Species interactions

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Ecology


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