To investigate the dynamics and relative drivers of cellulose degradation during litter decomposition, a field experiment was conducted in three individual ecosystems (i.e., forest floor, stream, and riparian zone) of an alpine forest meta-ecosystem on the eastern Tibetan Plateau. Four litter species (i.e., willow: Salix paraplesia
, azalea: Rhododendron lapponicum
, cypress: Sabina saltuaria
, and larch: Larix mastersiana
) that had varying initial litter chemical traits were placed separately in litterbags and then incubated on the soil surface of forest floor plots or in the water of the stream and riparian zone plots. Litterbags were retrieved five times each year during the two-year experiment, with nine replicates each time for each treatment. The results suggested that foliar litter lost 32.2%–89.2% of the initial dry mass depending on litter species and ecosystem type after two-year’s incubation. The cellulose lost 60.1%–96.8% of the initial mass with degradation rate in the order of stream > riparian zone > forest floor. Substantial cellulose degradation occurred at the very beginning (i.e., in the first pre-freezing period) of litter decomposition. Litter initial concentrations of phosphorus (P) and lignin were found to be the dominant chemical traits controlling cellulose degradation regardless of ecosystems type. The local-scale environmental factors such as temperature, pH, and nutrient availability were important moderators of cellulose degradation rate. Although the effects of common litter chemical traits (e.g., P and lignin concentrations) on cellulose degradation across different individual ecosystems were identified, local-scale environmental factors such as temperature and nutrient availability were found to be of great importance for cellulose degradation. These results indicated that local-scale environmental factors should be considered apart from litter quality for generating a reliable predictive framework for the drivers of cellulose degradation and further on litter decomposition at a global scale.
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