Dynamics of nutrient exchange between floodplains and rivers have been altered by changes in flow management and proliferation of nonnative plants. We tested the hypothesis that the nonnative, actinorhizal tree, Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia), alters dynamics of leaf litter decomposition compared to native cottonwood (Populus deltoides ssp. wislizeni) along the Rio Grande, a river with a modified flow regime, in central New Mexico (U.S.A.). Leaf litter was placed in the river channel and the surface and subsurface horizons of forest soil at seven riparian sites that differed in their hydrologic connection to the river. All sites had a cottonwood canopy with a Russian olive-dominated understory. Mass loss rates, nutrient content, fungal biomass, extracellular enzyme activities (EEA), and macroinvertebrate colonization were followed for three months in the river and one year in forests. Initial nitrogen (N) content of Russian olive litter (2.2%) was more than four times that of cottonwood (0.5%). Mass loss rates (k; in units of d(-1)) were greatest in the river (Russian olive, k = 0.0249; cottonwood, k = 0.0226), intermediate in subsurface soil (Russian olive, k = 0.0072; cottonwood, k = 0.0031), and slowest on the soil surface (Russian olive, k = 0.0034; cottonwood, k = 0.0012) in a ratio of about 10:2:1. Rates of mass loss in the river were indistinguishable between species and proportional to macroinvertebrate colonization. In the riparian forest, Russian olive decayed significantly faster than cottonwood in both soil horizons. Terrestrial decomposition rates were related positively to EEA, fungal biomass, and litter N, whereas differences among floodplain sites were related to hydrologic connectivity with the river. Because nutrient exchanges between riparian forests and the river have been constrained by flow management, Russian olive litter represents a significant annual input of N to riparian forests, which now retain a large portion of slowly decomposing cottonwood litter with a high potential for N immobilization. As a result, retention and mineralization of litter N within these forests is controlled by hydrologic connectivity to the river, which affects litter export and in situ decomposition.
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