Root traits predict decomposition across a landscape-scale grazing experiment

Stuart W. Smith, Sarah J. Woodin, Robin J. Pakeman, David Johnson, René van der Wal

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Summary Root litter is the dominant soil carbon and nutrient input in many ecosystems, yet few studies have considered how root decomposition is regulated at the landscape scale and how this is mediated by land-use management practices. Large herbivores can potentially influence below-ground decomposition through changes in soil microclimate (temperature and moisture) and changes in plant species composition (root traits). To investigate such herbivore-induced changes, we quantified annual root decomposition of upland grassland species in situ across a landscape-scale livestock grazing experiment, in a common-garden experiment and in laboratory microcosms evaluating the influence of key root traits on decomposition. Livestock grazing increased soil temperatures, but this did not affect root decomposition. Grazing had no effect on soil moisture, but wetter soils retarded root decomposition. Species-specific decomposition rates were similar across all grazing treatments, and species differences were maintained in the common-garden experiment, suggesting an overriding importance of litter type. Supporting this, in microcosms, roots with lower specific root area (m2 g?1) or those with higher phosphorus concentrations decomposed faster. Our results suggest that large herbivores alter below-ground carbon and nitrogen dynamics more through their effects on plant species composition and associated root traits than through effects on the soil microclimate.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)851-862
Number of pages12
JournalNew Phytologist
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 20 May 2014


  • carbon (C)
  • grassland
  • grazing
  • nitrogen (N)
  • plant traits
  • root decomposition
  • soil moisture
  • soil temperature


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