Pulse frequency and soil-litter mixing alter the control of cumulative precipitation over litter decomposition

François Xavier Joly, Kelsey L. Kurupas, Heather Throop

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

39 Scopus citations


Macroclimate has traditionally been considered the predominant driver of litter decomposition. However, in drylands, cumulative monthly or annual precipitation typically fails to predict decomposition. In these systems, the windows of opportunity for decomposer activity may rather depend on the precipitation frequency and local factors affecting litter desiccation, such as soil-litter mixing. We used a full-factorial microcosm experiment to disentangle the relative importance of cumulative precipitation, pulse frequency, and soil-litter mixing on litter decomposition. Decomposition, measured as litter carbon loss, saturated with increasing cumulative precipitation when pulses were large and infrequent, suggesting that litter moisture no longer increased and/or microbial activity was no longer limited by water availability above a certain pulse size. More frequent precipitation pulses led to increased decomposition at high levels of cumulative precipitation. Soil-litter mixing consistently increased decomposition, with greatest relative increase (+194%) under the driest conditions. Collectively, our results highlight the need to consider precipitation at finer temporal scale and incorporate soil-litter mixing as key driver of decomposition in drylands.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2255-2260
Number of pages6
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2017


  • Chihuahuan Desert
  • arid ecosystem
  • carbon cycle
  • global change
  • litter moisture
  • precipitation regime
  • water pulses

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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