Our understanding of fine-root decay processes is derived almost exclusively from litterbag studies. However, preparation of roots for litterbag studies and their subsequent decay within litterbags represent major departures from in situ conditions. We hypothesized that litterbag studies misrepresent fine-root decay and nutrient release rates during decomposition. To test these hypotheses we developed a new intact-core technique that requires no a priori root processing, retains natural rhizosphere associations, and maintains in situ decay conditions. Using both litterbags and intact cores, we measured annual decay rates and nitrogen release from newly senesced fine roots of silver maple, maize, and winter wheat. After one year, mass loss was 10–23% greater, and nitrogen release was 21–29% higher within intact cores. Differences appeared to result from litterbag-induced alterations to decomposer dynamics and from unavoidable changes to fine-root size-class composition within litterbags. Our results suggest that fine-root decay and nutrient turnover occur significantly faster than estimated from litterbag studies. By minimizing disturbances to roots, soil, and rhizosphere associates prior to root decay, the intact-core technique provides an improved alternative for measuring fine-root decomposition.
Available at: http://works.bepress.com/jim_raich/9/