The failure of nitrogen and lignin control of decomposition in a North American desert

Douglas Schaefer, Yosef Steinberger, Walter G. Whitford

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

99 Scopus citations


We measured mass losses of both buried and surface litter of six litter types: leaves of the perennial evergreen shrub, Larrea tridentata, leaves of the winter deciduous perennials Fluorensia cernua, Prosopis glandulosa and Chilopsis linearis (a desert riparian species), an evergreen monocot, Yucca elata, and a mixture of annual plants. These species differed in lignin content and carbon-nitrogen ratios. There was no correlation between rates of mass loss and percent lignin, carbon-nitrogen ratio, or lignin-nitrogen ratio. The leaves of F. cernua and the mixed annuals exhibited the highest rates of mass loss. Surface litter of Y. elata, the mixed annuals and C. linearis exhibited higher mass loss than buried litter of the same species. The patterns of mass loss of buried and surface litter differed with buried litter mass loss occurring as a negative exponential and surface litter exhibiting low rates in winter and spring and high rates in summer. There was no correlation between mass loss in surface bags that were field exposed for 1 month and actual evapotranspiration (AET) but there was a correlation between AET and mass losses in buried litter. A model relating mass loss to AET and initial lignin content underestimated mass losses in all species examined.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)382-386
Number of pages5
Issue number3
StatePublished - Feb 1985
Externally publishedYes


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