Leaf decomposition and flammability are largely decoupled across species in a tropical swamp forest despite sharing some predictive leaf functional traits

Nur E. B. Rahman, Stuart W. Smith, Weng Ngai Lam, Kwek Yan Chong, Matthias S. E. Chua, Pei Yun Teo, Daniel W. J. Lee, Shi Yu Phua, Cheryl Y. Aw, Janice S. H. Lee, David A. Wardle

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Decomposition and fire are major carbon pathways in many ecosystems, yet potential linkages between these processes are poorly understood. We test whether variability in decomposability and flammability across species are related to each other and to key plant functional traits in tropical swamp forests, where habitat degradation is elevating decomposition and fire regimes. Using senesced and fresh leaves of 22 swamp tree species in Singapore, we conducted an in situ decomposition experiment and a laboratory flammability experiment. We analysed 16 leaf physical and biochemical traits as predictors of decomposability and components of flammability: combustibility, ignitability, and sustainability. Decomposability and flammability were largely decoupled across species, despite some shared predictive traits such as specific leaf area. Physical traits predicted that thicker leaves with a smaller specific leaf area and volume decomposed faster, while various cation concentrations predicted flammability components, particularly ignitability. We show that flammability and decomposability of swamp forest leaves are decoupled because flammability is mostly driven by biochemical traits, while decomposition is driven by physical traits. Our approach identifies species that are slow to decompose and burn (e.g., Calophyllum tetrapterum and Xanthophyllum flavescens) which could be planted to mitigate carbon losses in tropical swamp reforestation.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)598-611
Number of pages14
JournalNew Phytologist
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 18 Jan 2023

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This study was funded by the Singapore Ministry of Education grant (MOE2018‐T2‐2‐156). We would also like to thank Cai Yixiong, Sebastian Ow and Jayasri Lakshminarayanan for facilitating access into Nee Soon Swamp Forest under the research permit NP/RP18‐002‐4. We are grateful also to Ngo Kang Min, Lu Chuansen Leon, Tan Kee Boon Sylvia, Chiok Wen Xuan Shane, Saloni Swaminathan, Ng Jun Wei Dominic Pierre, Marx Yim, Soh Sun Yi and Ang Bing Hong Shawn for assistance with fieldwork.


  • anaerobic soil environments
  • faunal decomposition
  • fire
  • litterbag
  • morphological traits
  • plant economic spectrum
  • Southeast Asia
  • wetlands
  • Plant Science
  • Physiology


Dive into the research topics of 'Leaf decomposition and flammability are largely decoupled across species in a tropical swamp forest despite sharing some predictive leaf functional traits'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this