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Biology
Completed Project

Pathways and Patterns of Plant Chemistry During Decomposition

Stephen Peters-Collaer ’17, Patrick Susman ’17, and Lynn Christenson (Biology)

Decomposition is a fundamental ecological process, important for the cycling of nutrients such as carbon and nitrogen. Numerous studies have described how plant litter chemical content relates to its decomposition, but most focus only on the initial chemistry as an indicator of how litter will behave throughout decomposition. This limits our understanding of later stages of decay, which are important for long-term movement of nutrients in an ecosystem. If litter chemistry does not change in parallel with the initial chemistry, our ability to predict the later stages of decomposition will be limited. We analyzed changes in litter chemistry throughout decomposition from a variety of plants from multiple ecosystems using archived samples. We explored whether diverse plant types maintain initial chemical differences throughout decay, remaining chemically unique, or if decomposing litter follows different chemical trajectories over time. Further, we attempted to identify how ecosystem type and climate affect decomposition. This helps us to understand how climate change may affect nutrient cycling in the future. Finally, we attempted to further understand human impacts on decomposition by looking at the effects of acid deposition. Acid deposition leaches calcium and other nutrients from soils, which appears to have effects on decomposition, potentially by changing decomposer and plant communities that reside in these soils.