Litter Decomposition Dataset

Litter Decomposition Dataset


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Decomposition is the breakdown of dead organic material by organisms in the soil, such as fungi, bacteria, and invertebrates. Decomposers play a key role in the cycling of nutrients such as carbon and nitrogen. When decomposers break down dead plants and animals, they release nutrients into the air and soil, making them available for plants again.


Decomposition rates are affected by several factors, including moisture, temperature, composition of the material being decomposed, and the types of decomposers that are present. This study was designed to examine how climate affects the decomposition rate of leaf litter, which includes leaves and other plant material.





Scientists from around the world formed the Long-Term Inter-site Decomposition Experiment Team (LIDET) and conducted this research over a 10-year period across 27 sites in North and Central America. The data shown here are a subset of the larger dataset. These data show decomposition of one plant species across three sites in three different ecosystems. These were the methods used to collect the data:


  • Broad-leaf shrub (Drypetes glauca) leaf litter was collected from Puerto Rico.

                 Mesh litterbag collected in the field.
                  Photo from LIDET project website.

  • 40 mesh litterbags, containing 10 grams of broad-leaf shrub leaf litter each, were placed on the ground at each site.
  • Four litterbags from each site were collected each year, except in Costa Rica where bags were collected every 3-6 months due to higher decomposition rates. This sample of four litterbags was removed from the field and was not placed back at the site after processing.
  • The litter in the collected litterbags was dried and weighed.
  • To determine the mass of the organic leaf litter, the mass of the inorganic materials (such as phosphorous, calcium, and aluminum) must first be isolated. The contents of each litterbag were burned. During this process, all of the organic litter (e.g., leaves) burned off and only inorganic materials (e.g., sand or small rocks) were left in the ash.
  • After burning, the inorganic materials were weighed, and their mass was subtracted from the mass of all the dried litter that was collected, giving the total amount of organic litter. For example, if the dried litter collected at a site weighed 5 grams, and the inorganic materials remaining after burning weighed 1 gram, then the organic litter remaining in the bag must have been 4 grams. This is 40% of the original 10 grams of litter placed in the bag, so scientists would record the mass remaining as 40%.






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