Understanding how biodiversity loss influences plant litter decomposition—that is, the biologically mediated conversion of coarse to fine particulate organic matter—is crucial to predict changes in the functioning of many stream ecosystems, where detrital food webs are dominant. Rates of litter decomposition are influenced by detritivore diversity, but the mechanisms behind this relationship are uncertain. As differences in detritivore body size are a major determinant of interspecific interactions, they should be key for predicting effects of detritivore diversity on decomposition. To explore this question, we manipulated detritivore diversity and body size simultaneously in a microcosm experiment using two small (Leuctra geniculata and Lepidostoma hirtum) and two large detritivore species (Sericostoma pyrenaicum and Echinogammarus berilloni) in all possible 1-, 2- and 4-species combinations, and litter discs of Alnus glutinosa. We expected that larger species would facilitate smaller species through the production of smaller litter fragments, resulting in faster decomposition and greater growth of smaller species in polycultures containing species of different body size. To examine this hypothesis, we used a set of “diversity–interaction” models that explored how decomposition was affected by different interspecific interactions and the role of body size, and quantified the magnitude of such effect through ratios of decomposition rates and detritivore growth between polycultures and monocultures. We found a clear positive effect of detritivore diversity on decomposition, which was mainly explained by facilitation and niche partitioning. Facilitation of small animals by larger ones was evidenced by a 12% increase in decomposition rates in polycultures compared to monocultures and the higher growth (20%) of small species, which partly fed on fine particulate organic matter produced by larger animals. When the large species were together in polycultures, decomposition was enhanced by 19%, but there were no changes in growth; niche partitioning was a plausible mechanism behind the increase in decomposition rates, as both species fed on different parts of litter discs, only one species being able to eat less palatable parts. Our study demonstrates that interspecific differences in body size should be taken into account in diversity–decomposition studies. Future studies should also consider differences in species’ vulnerability to extinction depending on body size and how this might affect ecosystem functioning in different scenarios of detritivore diversity and more complex food webs.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
- Animal Science and Zoology