Are litter decomposition and fire linked through plant species traits?

Johannes H C Cornelissen, Saskia Grootemaat, Lieneke M Verheijen, William K Cornwell, Peter M van Bodegom, René van der Wal, Rien Aerts

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

34 Citations (Scopus)


Biological decomposition and wildfire are connected carbon release pathways for dead plant material: slower litter decomposition leads to fuel accumulation. Are decomposition and surface fires also connected through plant community composition, via the species’ traits? Our central concept involves two axes of trait variation related to decomposition and fire. The ‘plant economics spectrum’ (PES) links biochemistry traits to the litter decomposability of different fine organs. The ‘size and shape spectrum’ (SSS) includes litter particle size and shape and their consequent effect on fuel bed structure, ventilation and flammability. Our literature synthesis revealed that PES-driven decomposability is largely decoupled from predominantly SSS-driven surface litter flammability across species; this finding needs empirical testing in various environmental settings. Under certain conditions, carbon release will be dominated by decomposition, while under other conditions litter fuel will accumulate and fire may dominate carbon release. Ecosystem-level feedbacks between decomposition and fire, for example via litter amounts, litter decomposition stage, community-level biotic interactions and altered environment, will influence the trait-driven effects on decomposition and fire. Yet, our conceptual framework, explicitly comparing the effects of two plant trait spectra on litter decomposition vs fire, provides a promising new research direction for better understanding and predicting Earth surface carbon dynamics.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)653-669
Number of pages17
JournalNew Phytologist
Issue number3
Early online date11 Sep 2017
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2017


  • Journal Article
  • Review


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