Litter production from above-ground (leaves, twigs, fruits, flowers) and below-ground (roots) plant organs is an important component of the cycling of carbon and nutrients in forests. Tropical montane forests possess comparatively large quantities of fine-root biomass, suggesting that litter production by dying fine roots may represent a major component of total litter production. In a comparative study in three tropical montane forests of southern Ecuador at 1890, 2380 and 3060 m elevation, we measured leaf-fall by litter trapping and fine-root litter production by sequential soil coring and fine-root biomass and necromass analysis for about 1 y with the objectives (1) to quantify annual above- and below-ground litter production, and (2) to investigate elevational differences in litter production. Leaf litter mass decreased to less than a third (862 to 263 g m−2 y−1) with increasing elevation (1890 m to 3060 m), whereas fine-root litter production increased by a factor of about four (506 to 2084 g m−2 y−1). Thus, the ratio of leaf to fine-root litter shifted by an order of magnitude in favour of fine-root litter production between 1890 to 3060 m. Fine-root litter production was not synchronized with leaf litterfall and was seasonal only at 3060 m with mortality peaks in the drier and the wetter periods. We conclude that dying fine roots represent a very important fraction of total litterfall in tropical montane forests that can exceed the quantity of leaf litter. At 3060 m, the largest part of the organic material on top of the soil must originate from dying fine roots but not from fallen leaves.
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