Changes in litter properties during decomposition: A study by differential thermogravimetry and scanning calorimetry

Rovira P, Kurz-Besson C, Coûteaux M-M, Vallejo VR,
Soil Biology & Biochemistry 40 (2008) 172–185,

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To verify the paradigm that organic matter (OM) quality (q) decreases with decomposition it is necessary to define q in strictly chemical, operational terms. We suggest defining q as the result of a balance between the energy stored in OM and the external supply of energy needed to release it. We apply this concept to the study of litter decomposition in four European pine forests: boreal, cool Atlantic, Mediterranean and warm Atlantic. Intact litter cores were taken and transported to the laboratory, where needles were sorted into six classes that summarize the main facts of the decomposition: melanisation, fragmentation and perforation by mesofauna. Each class was analyzed by both differential thermogravimetry and differential scanning calorimetry to obtain its spectra of weight loss and energy release. In the non-decomposed needles, two peaks of weight loss and energy release appear: a labile peak at about 350 °C, and a recalcitrant peak at about 450 °C. During decomposition, both peaks (but especially the recalcitrant one) move to lower temperatures, and their shapes change from well defined to flattened. In Mediterranean litters, a third peak appears at about 500 °C, due probably to refractory products of neoformation. There is a continuous increase in the energy stored in the remaining litter (in Joules per unit OM): this increase is concentrated in both the most thermolabile fractions (lost at temperatures <350 °C) and the most thermostable ones (>450 °C). With decomposition OM becomes more recalcitrant (i.e., it is lost at higher temperatures), but its stored energy becomes more available (i.e., it is released at lower temperatures). Overall, the energetic benefit/cost ratio increases. Thus, our results to date do not agree with the current paradigm that q decreases with decomposition; rather, they suggest that, at least in the first phases we studied, q is maintained or even increases.