High litterfall in old-growth and secondary upper montane forest of Costa Rica

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Tropical upper montane forests usually comprise trees of small stature with a relatively low aboveground productivity. In contrast to this rule, in the Cordillera de Talamanca (Costa Rica), tall trees (>35 m in height and more than 60 cm in diameter) are characteristic for the upper montane old-growth oak forests which are growing at an altitude of almost 3,000 m close to the alpine timberline. For these exceptional forests, productivity data are not yet available. In this study, we analyzed litterfall and its components (tree leaves, litter of epiphytic vascular and non-vascular plants, mistletoes, twigs and other canopy debris) in three forest stands belonging to different successional stages and related seasonal changes in litterfall to micrometeorological variables. The studied stands were early-successional forest (10–15-year-old), mid-successional forest (40-year-old), and old-growth forest. The stands are dominated by Quercus copeyensis and are located at 2,900-m altitude. Total litterfall was highest in the mid-successional forest (1,720 g m−2 y−1), and reached 1,288 g m−2 y−1 in the old-growth forest and 934 g m−2 y−1in the early-successional forest. Litter mass was dominated by leaves in all stages (56–84% of total litterfall). In the old-growth forest, however, twigs and small canopy debris particles (33%), epiphytes (6%), and mistletoes (5%) also contributed substantially to litter mass. Leaf litterfall showed a clear seasonal pattern with a negative correlation to monthly precipitation and highest values in the dry season (January–April). However, the strongest correlation existed with minimum air temperature (negative), probably because temperatures already dropped at the end of the rainy season, when precipitation had not yet declined and leaf shedding already increased. In contrast, litterfall of epiphyte mass, and twigs and other debris was mostly dependent on occasional strong winds. We conclude that the upper montane oak forests of the Cordillera de Talamanca are exceptional with respect to the large tree size and the relatively high productivity as indicated by litterfall. Litter mass was especially high in the mid-successional and old-growth forests, where the observed annual totals are among the highest recorded for tropical forests so far.

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