Consequences of non-random species loss for decomposition dynamics: Experimental evidence for additive and non-additive effects

Becky A. Ball, Mark D. Hunter, John S. Kominoski, Christopher M. Swan, Mark A. Bradford

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

122 Scopus citations


1. Although litter decomposition is a fundamental ecological process, most of our understanding comes from studies of single-species decay. Recently, litter-mixing studies have tested whether monoculture data can be applied to mixed-litter systems. These studies have mainly attempted to detect non-additive effects of litter mixing, which address potential consequences of random species loss - the focus is not on which species are lost, but the decline in diversity per se. 2. Under global change, species loss is likely to be non-random, with some species more vulnerable to extinction than others. Under such scenarios, the effects of individual species (additivity) as well as of species interactions (non-additivity) on decomposition rates are of interest. 3. To examine potential impacts of non-random species loss on ecosystems, we studied additive and non-additive effects of litter mixing on decomposition. A full-factorial litterbag experiment was conducted using four deciduous leaf species, from which mass loss and nitrogen content were measured. Data were analysed using a statistical approach that first looks for additive identity effects based on the presence or absence of species and then significant species interactions occurring beyond those. It partitions non-additive effects into those caused by richness and/or composition. 4. This approach addresses questions key to understanding the potential effects of species loss on ecosystem processes. If additive effects dominate, the consequences for decomposition dynamics will be predictable based on our knowledge of individual species, but not statistically predictable if non-additive effects dominate. 5. We found additive (identity) effects on mass loss and non-additive (composition) effects on litter nitrogen dynamics, suggesting that non-random species loss could significantly affect this system. We were able to identify the species responsible for effects that would otherwise have been considered idiosyncratic or absent when analysed by the methods used in previous work. 6. Synthesis. We observed both additive and non-additive effects of litter-mixing on decomposition, indicating consequences of non-random species loss. To predict the consequences of global change for ecosystem functioning, studies should examine the effects of both random and non-random species loss, which will help identify the mechanisms that influence the response of ecosystems to environmental change.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)303-313
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Ecology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2008
Externally publishedYes


  • Biodiversity
  • Decomposition
  • Ecosystem function
  • Litter mixtures
  • Litter quality
  • Non-random species loss
  • Random species loss
  • Species composition
  • Species diversity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Plant Science


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