Drought inhibits synergistic interactions of native and exotic litter mixtures during decomposition in temperate grasslands.
Background and aims: Leaf litters commonly interact during decomposition in ways that can synergistically increases rates of decay. These interactions have been linked to moisture availability, suggesting that drought could slow decomposition rates by disrupting litter interactions. Slowed decomposition may reduce competitive ability of exotic species that exploit rapid decomposition rates as part of niche construction mechanisms. Here, we evaluated the impacts of drought on interactions between native and exotic species' litter decomposition. Methods: We considered litter mixtures of Lupinus polyphyllus (exotic N-fixing forb), Trifolium pratense (native N-fixing forb), Senecio inaequidens (exotic non-N-fixing forb), and Senecio jacobaea (native non-N-fixing forb) with the native grass Alopecurus pratensis and evaluated the difference between the observed rate of decay and the one expected based on species decomposing in monocultures. Litters were deployed in Belgium and Germany and exposed to a 56 day drought, which resembled local millennium drought (statistical recurrence of duration in local precipitation series >1000 years). Results: Litter interactions reduced mass remaining by 81% in Belgium and 15% in Germany, averaged across mixtures. Similarly, litter interactions reduced N remaining by 93% in Belgium and 14% in Germany. Drought consistently removed these interactions and resulted in additive litter decay. Litters of native and exotic species did not differ in their response to drought. Conclusions: These findings support moisture availability as a key regulator of interactions between litters during decomposition. Thus, increasing frequency of drought may slow nutrient cycling to a greater extent than previously thought.