Forest gap size can efficiently promote litter decomposition and nutrient release in south-western China

Forest gaps are important in forest dynamics and management; however, the gap size that is most conducive to the decomposition of litter and promotion of nutrient cycling in forests remains poorly understood. The mass loss and nutrient release from Pinus massoniana and Toona ciliata litter in response to gap size classes were determined in south-western China during a 1.5-year litter decomposition experiment. One site with a closed canopy (CK) and seven sites with forest gaps of 100, 225, 400, 625, 900, 1 225 and 1 600 m2 were established in a P. massoniana plantation in the Sichuan Basin of China; the CK site (fully shaded) was treated as the control. After 540 d, the mass and carbon (C), nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) contents in the litter of the control treatments decreased by 58.23%, 60.81%, 65.62% and 57.82% for P. massoniana litter and by 91.17%, 80.76%, 73.66% and 64.55% for T. ciliata litter, respectively, compared with the initial amounts. Most of the C, N and P were released from both tree species during the first 90 d of decomposition, although the temperature and moisture conditions were very low. The mass loss and C and N release rates for the two tree species and the P release rate from T. ciliata litter were higher in the 400–900 m2 gap sites than in the other gap sites and the CK site, whereas the P release rate from P. massoniana litter was greater under large and medium-sized gaps (400–1 600 m2). The mass loss and C, N and P release rates were positively correlated with the soil moisture content in the seven different gap size treatments, with the soil moisture content representing the best predictor of litter decomposition. Therefore, our results indicate that medium-sized gaps (400–900 m2) can promote decomposition by changing the environmental conditions and may accelerate nutrient cycling in forest ecosystems.