It is increasingly recognized that interactions between plants and soil (a)biotic conditions can influence local decomposition processes. For example, decomposer communities may become specialized in breaking down litter of plant species that they are associated with, resulting in accelerated decomposition, known as “home‐field advantage” (HFA). Also, soils can vary inherently in their capacity to degrade organic compounds, known as “ability.” However, we have a poor understanding how environmental conditions drive the occurrence of HFA and ability.
Here, we studied how HFA and ability change across three types of successional gradients: coastal sand dunes (primary succession), inland drift sands (primary succession) and ex‐arable fields (secondary succession). Across these gradients, litter quality (i.e. nutrient, carbon and lignin contents) increases with successional time for coastal dunes and decreases for the other two gradients.
We performed a 12‐months reciprocal litter transplant experiment under greenhouse conditions using soils and litters collected from early‐, mid‐ and late‐successional stages of each gradient.
We found that HFA and ability did not consistently shift with successional stage for all gradients, but were instead specific for each type of successional gradient. In coastal dunes, HFA was positive for early‐successional litter, in drift, sands it was negative for mid‐successional litter, and for ex‐arable fields, HFA increased with successional time. Ability of decomposer communities was highest in mid‐successional stages for coastal dunes and drift sands, but for ex‐arable fields, ability decreased throughout with successional time. High HFA was related to high litter C content and soil and organic matter content in soils and to low litter and soil nutrient concentrations. Ability did not consistently occur in successional stages with high or low litter quality.
Synthesis. Our findings show that specific environmental conditions, such as changes in litter or soil quality, along environmental gradients can shape the influence of HFA and ability on decomposition. In sites with strong HFA or ability, interactions between plants, litter and decomposer communities will be important drivers of nutrient cycling and hence have the potential to feedback to plant growth.