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Journal of Arid Land  2021, Vol. 13 Issue (7): 717-729    DOI: 10.1007/s40333-021-0076-3
Research article     
Contrasting effects of nitrogen addition on litter decomposition in forests and grasslands in China
SU Yuan1,2,3, MA Xiaofei1,3, GONG Yanming1,2, LI Kaihui1,2,4,*(), HAN Wenxuan1,5, LIU Xuejun1,5,*()
1State Key Laboratory of Desert and Oasis Ecology, Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Urumqi 830011, China
2Bayanbulak Grassland Ecosystem Research Station, Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Bayanbulak 841314, China
3University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100049, China
4Chinese Academy of Sciences Research Center for Ecology and Environment of Central Asia, Urumqi 830011, China
5Beijing Key Laboratory of Farmland Soil Pollution Prevention and Remediation, College of Resources and Environmental Sciences, China Agricultural University, Beijing 100193, China
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Nitrogen (N) addition has profound impacts on litter-mediated nutrient cycling. Numerous studies have reported different effects of N addition on litter decomposition, exhibiting positive, negative, or neutral effects. Previous meta-analysis of litter decomposition under N addition was mainly based on a small number of samples to allow comparisons among ecosystem types. This study presents the results of a meta-analysis incorporating data from 53 published studies (including 617 observations) across forests, grasslands, wetlands, and croplands in China, to investigate how environmental and experimental factors impact the effects of N addition on litter decomposition. Averaged across all of the studies, N addition significantly slows litter decomposition by 7.02%. Considering ecosystem types, N addition significantly accelerates litter decomposition by 3.70% and 11.22% in grasslands and wetlands, respectively, clearly inhibits litter decomposition by 14.53% in forests, and has no significant effects on litter decomposition in croplands. Regarding the accelerated litter decomposition rate in grasslands due to N addition, litter decomposition rate increases slightly with increasing rates of N addition. However, N addition slows litter decomposition in forests, but litter decomposition is at a significantly increasing rate with increasing amounts of N addition. The responses of litter decomposition to N addition are also influenced by the forms of N addition, experiential duration of N addition, humidity index, litter quality, and soil pH. In summary, N addition alters litter decomposition rate, but the direction and magnitude of the response are affected by the forms of N addition, the rate of N addition, ambient N deposition, experimental duration, and climate factors. Our study highlights the contrasting effects of N addition on litter decomposition in forests and grasslands. This finding could be used in biogeochemical models to better evaluate ecosystem carbon cycling under increasing N deposition due to the differential responses of litter decomposition to N addition rates and ecosystem types.

Key wordslitter decomposition rate      N addition      ambient N deposition      litter quality      meta-analysis      forests      grasslands     
Received: 01 March 2021      Published: 10 July 2021
Corresponding Authors: LI Kaihui,LIU Xuejun     E-mail:;
About author: LIU Xuejun (E-mail:
*LI Kaihui (E-mail:;
First author contact:

The first and second authors contributed equally to this work.

Cite this article:

SU Yuan, MA Xiaofei, GONG Yanming, LI Kaihui, HAN Wenxuan, LIU Xuejun. Contrasting effects of nitrogen addition on litter decomposition in forests and grasslands in China. Journal of Arid Land, 2021, 13(7): 717-729.

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Fig. 1 Relationship between litter decomposition rate in the control group and litter decomposition rate in the treatment group. The 1:1 line represents a similar litter decomposition rate in the control group and treatment group, whereas the circle above or below this line indicates an increase or decrease in litter decomposition rate as a result of N addition, respectively.
Fig. 2 Mean percentage variation of litter decomposition rates with N addition in different ecosystem types (a) and the effect of the rate of N addition on litter decomposition rate in forests and grasslands (b). The effects of N addition on litter decomposition rate were considered as significant when 95% confidence intervals did not overlap with zero, and were significantly different from each other when 95% confidence intervals of each categorical group did not overlap. Values in the brackets represent the number of observations.
Fig. 3 Mean percentage variation of litter decomposition rate to different forms of N addition, the ratio of the rate of N addition to ambient N deposition, and ambient N deposition (a), as well as mean percentage variation of litter decomposition rate to experimental duration, soil pH, and humidity index (b). Values in the brackets represent the number of observations.
Fig. 4 Linear regression relationships of the logarithmic response ratio (lnRR) of litter decomposition rate with the rate of N addition (a), ambient N deposition (b), and the ratio of the rate of N addition to ambient N deposition (c)
Fig. 5 Linear regression relationships of the lnRR of litter decomposition rate with mean annual precipitation (MAP) (a), annual mean temperature (AMT) (b), and humidity index (c)
Fig. 6 Linear regression relationships of the lnRR of litter decomposition rate with litter C (a), litter N (b), litter phosphorus (P) (c), C:N ratio (d), lignin (e), cellulose (f), the ratio of lignin to litter N (g), and experimental duration (h)
Fig. S1 Linear regression relationship between annual mean temperature (AMT) and mean annual precipitation (MAP) used in the meta-analysis study
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