Can invasive species actually alter their environment so that more nutrients are available for them? Find out in the Early View paper “Non-additive effects of invasive tree litter shift seasonal N release: a potential invasion feedback” by Michael J. Schuster and Jeffrey S. Dukes. Below is their summary of the study:
Many woody invasive species change their environment to better fit their needs for resources, particularly soil nutrients like nitrogen. One way that they can do this is by accelerating the decomposition of leaf litter—an important step in recycling leaf nitrogen into a form that can be used by plants. However, much of what we know about the decomposition of invasive species’ litters, and their impacts on soil fertility, is based on observations of litter from an individual species decomposing by itself. This is problematic because litters rarely decompose by themselves in nature. More commonly, litters of multiple species are mixed together and decompose more quickly or more slowly than we would expect based on the decomposition rates of each species separately. Thus, we designed a litter bag experiment to examine how the litter of four invasive tree species decomposed differently when mixed with that of four native species, and how this difference might change as the invader became more dominant in the litter layer.
One year and 448 litter bags later, we found some surprising results. Indeed, native-invasive litter mixtures commonly decomposed at different rates than would have been predicted, but whether mixtures lost mass faster or slower than the predicted rate did not follow a strong, consistent pattern. In contrast, the release of nitrogen from these mixtures followed a very clear pattern of being slowed early on, but catching up to or exceeding the amount of nitrogen that would have been predicted at the end of the experiment. Implicitly, native-invasive mixtures were consolidating the release of their nitrogen until later on in the decomposition process, a time that corresponded to the period during which plants, especially the fast-growing invasive species, require the most nitrogen. This pattern was stronger in mixtures comprised mostly of the invasive species and for invaders that produced more nitrogen-rich litter. These findings, in concert with others’ on invasive species and nutrient cycling, led us to suggest that these invasive species might be shifting the release of nitrogen from the litter layer to a time when they are better able to use that nitrogen, and that this might be an important contributing factor to the success of some invasive species.