How well does a log decay-class system capture the ecology of decomposition? - A case-study from Tasmanian Eucalyptus obliqua forest
Grove, S and Stamm, L and Wardlaw, TJ, How well does a log decay-class system capture the ecology of decomposition? - A case-study from Tasmanian Eucalyptus obliqua forest, Forest Ecology and Management, 262, (4) pp. 692-700. ISSN 0378-1127 (2011) [Refereed Article]
The use of decay-class systems in characterising the state of decomposition of a forest's complement of rotting logs is widespread. While most systems are based on an assessment of logs' external characteristics, there is an implicit assumption that doing so captures important information on the underlying processes of internal decomposition. However, the validity of this remains largely untested. We explored the relationship between decay-class and internal state of decomposition in logs of Eucalyptus obliqua in the lowland wet eucalypt forests of Southern Tasmania, Australia. We examined rotten-wood samples from a large population of logs across a wide range of diameters. From this we determined that smaller-diameter (<60 cm: regrowth-sized) logs differ from larger-diameter (>60 cm: mature-sized) logs in their pathways of internal decomposition. Decomposition in regrowth-sized logs is characterised by greater activity of surface rots, with white rot-types predominating. Decomposition in mature-sized logs is more concentrated in the interior of the log, with brown rot-types tending to dominate. These differences probably both reflect and help shape the communities of organisms inhabiting logs of different origins. Despite these differences, regrowth and mature-sized logs show the same general progression of internal decomposition across the five decay-classes, to the extent that each class represents logs that have lost a predictable proportion of their original mass. We conclude that a decay-class system that is restricted to a single dimension, such as the five-class system used for E. obliqua, will be quite able to capture the main trajectory of biomass loss, but will not be able to characterise the complexity of the ecological processes giving rise to this loss. Studies that employ single-dimension decay classes, and which aggregate decay-class data across logs, can be given added ecological meaning by first partitioning logs into diameter-classes that reflect the underlying differences in the maturity of the trees giving rise to the logs. For E. obliqua logs, a cut-off diameter of 60 cm offers an appropriate distinction between regrowth-aged and mature-aged trees.