Decomposition of Herbivore-Damaged Leaves of Understory Species Growing in Oak and Pine Stands

Łukowski A., Giertych M. J., Żmuda M., Mąderek E., Adamczyk D., Karolewski P. (2021). Decomposition of herbivore-damaged leaves of understory species growing in oak and pine stands. Forests, 12(3), 304.

Leaves are the largest component of forest litter. Their decomposition rate depends mainly on plant species, leaf chemical composition, microorganism biodiversity, and habitat conditions. It is known that herbivory by insects can modify the chemical composition of leaves, such as through induction. The aim of this study was to determine whether the rate of leaf decomposition is related to the susceptibility of the plant species to insect feeding and how leaf damage affects this rate. For our research, we chose six species differing in leaf resistance to insect damage: Cornus sanguinea, Frangula alnus, and Sambucus nigra (herbivore resistant), and Corylus avellana, P. padus, and Prunus serotina (herbivore susceptible). The decomposition of these plant leaves was examined in two monoculture forest stands, deciduous (Quercus robur) and coniferous (Pinus sylvestris). Litter decay rate k and change of litter mass, content of defensive metabolites (total phenols (TPh) and condensed tannins), and substances beneficial for organisms decomposing litter (nitrogen (N) and nonstructural carbohydrates (TNC)) were determined. Contrary to our expectations, leaf litter of herbivore-resistant species decomposed faster than that of herbivore-susceptible species, and damaged leaves decayed faster than undamaged leaves. We found that faster decaying leaf litter had a lower content of defensive compounds and a higher content of TNC and N, regardless of the plant species or leaf damage. Leaf litter decomposition caused a large and rapid decrease in the content of defensive compounds and TNC, and an increase in N. In all species, the tannin content was lower in damaged than in undamaged leaves. This pattern was also observed for TPh, except in S. nigra. We interpret this as the main reason for faster decay of damaged leaves. Moreover, the loss of leaf mass was greater under oak than pine stands, indicating that the microorganisms in deciduous stands are more effective at decomposing litter, regardless of leaf damage.

Keywords: decay rate, decomposition, insect damage, litter, nitrogen, nonstructural carbohydrates, phenolics, starch, tannins