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The effects of plant litter for seedling emergence and species composition in grassland and woodland communities.


Scientists involved: Dr. Tobias W. Donath, apl. Prof. Dr. Rolf Lutz Eckstein, Dr. Alejandro Loydi, Dr. Eszter Ruprecht (Universität Cluj, Rumänien)

Project period: 2005 -

Keywords: Community assembly, Conservation, Deciduous forest, Facilitation, Flood meadows, Galium, Germination, Inula, Litter, Peucedanum, Poa, Rumex, Seed size, Silaum, Succession, Viola, Wet meadows

Dead plant remains, i.e. litter, are an important component of biogeochemical nutrient cycles. The rate of litter degradation via decomposition has large impacts on ecosystem productivity and community composition. However, apart from these long-term effects on ecosystem processes, the accumulation of litter may also exert various short-term effects on plant communities. These may be direct, e.g. when litter acts as a physical barrier for the establishment of seedlings, or indirect through changes in abiotic conditions.
The composition of local plant communities is controlled by a series of filters that select those species from the global species pool that (i) reach the local site, (ii) tolerate the local environmental conditions and (iii) establish successful interactions with other organisms of the same or other trophic levels.
Several studies have pointed out the importance of 'after death interactions' mediated through litter on species composition and diversity. Plant litter has the potential to interfere with plant performance at various developmental stages through alteration of the chemical (nutrient availability, allelopathy) or physical environment (light availability, temperature fluctuations, water availability), through mechanical effects, i.e. acting as a barrier for initial seedling growth or by modifying biotic interactions, e.g. lowering competition and increasing insect herbivory.
In a series of experiments we tested various aspects of the potential effects of litter cover on the establishment of seedlings. In a first paper we studied the interaction effects of litter cover and soil water availability on seedling emergence of four familial pairs of floodplain species. In a second study we focused on differential effects of two litter types (grass litter and tree litter) on species originating from grasslands and woodlands and discussed possible consequences for community composition and the succession from grassland to woodland.


Alejandro Loydi was funded by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (Georg Forster Research Fellowship; 2011-2013).

Eszter Ruprecht's work was partly funded by the German Academic Exchange Servise (DAAD).



Loydi A., Donath T.W., Otte A. & Eckstein R.L. 2015: Negative and positive interactions among plants: effects of competitors and litter on seedling emergence and growth of forest and grassland species. - Plant Biology 17: 667-675.

Loydi A., Donath T.W., Eckstein R.L. & Otte A. 2015: Non-native species litter reduces germination and growth of resident forbs and grasses: allelopathic, osmotic or mechanical effects? - Biological Invasions 17: 581-595.

Loydi A., Lohse K., Otte A., Donath T.W. & Eckstein R.L. 2014. Distribution and effects of tree leaf litter on vegetation composition and biomass in a forest-grassland ecotone. - Journal of Plant Ecology 7:264-275.

Loydi, A., Eckstein, R.L., Otte, A. & Donath, T.W. 2013. Effects of litter on seedling establishment in natural and semi-natural grasslands: a meta-analysis. Journal of Ecology 101: 454-464

Schmiede, R., Ruprecht, E., Eckstein, R.L., Otte, A. & Donath, T.W. 2013. Establishment of rare flood meadow species by plant material transfer: experimental tests of threshold amounts and the effect of sowing position. Biological Conservation 159: 222-229

Eckstein, R.L., Ruch, D., Otte, A. & Donath, T.W. 2012:Invasibility of a nutrient-poor pasture through resident and non-resident herbs is controlled by litter, gap size and propagule pressure. PLoS ONE 7: e41887. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0041887

Donath T.W. & Eckstein R.L. 2012: Litter effects on seedling establishment interact with seed position and earthworm activity. Plant Biology 14: 163–170

Donath, T.W. & Eckstein, R.L. 2010. Effects of bryophytes and grass litter on seedling emergence vary by vertical seed position and seed size. Plant Ecology 207: 257-268.

Ruprecht, E., Enyedi, M.Z., Eckstein, R.L. & Donath, T.W. 2010. Restorative removal of plant litter and vegetation enhances re-emergence of steppe grassland. Biological Conservation 143: 449-456.

Ruprecht E., Donath T.W., Otte A. & Eckstein R.L. 2008: Chemical effects of dominant grass on seed germination of four familial pairs of dry grassland species. Seed Science Research 18: 239-248 PDF Publisher's notice

Donath T.W. & Eckstein R.L. 2008: Grass and oak litter exert different effects on seedling emergence of herbaceous perennials from grasslands and woodlands. Journal of Ecology 96: 272-280

Eckstein R.L. & Donath T.W. 2005: Interactions between litter and water availability affect seedling emergence in four familial pairs of floodplain species. Journal of Ecology 93: 807-816 PDF Publisher's notice