Earthworms and legumes control litter decomposition in a plant diversity gradient.
The role of species and functional group diversity of primary producers for decomposers and decomposition processes is little understood. We made use of the "Jena Biodiversity Experiment" and tested the hypothesis that increasing plant species (1, 4, and 16 species) and functional group diversity (1, 2, 3, and 4 groups) beneficially affects decomposer density and activity and therefore the decomposition of plant litter material. Furthermore, by manipulating the densities of decomposers (earthworms and springtails) within the plant diversity gradient we investigated how the interactions between plant diversity and decomposer densities affect the decomposition of litter belonging to different plant functional groups (grasses, herbs, and legumes). Positive effects of increasing plant species or functional group diversity on earthworms (biomass and density) and microbial biomass were mainly due to the increased incidence of legumes with increasing diversity. Neither plant species diversity nor functional group diversity affected litter decomposition, However, litter decomposition varied with decomposer and plant functional group identity (of both living plants and plant litter). While springtail removal generally had little effect on decomposition, increased earthworm density accelerated the decomposition of nitrogen-rich legume litter, and this was more pronounced at higher plant diversity. The results suggest that earthworms (Lumbricus terrestris L.) and legumes function as keystone organisms for grassland decomposition processes and presumably contribute to the recorded increase in primary productivity with increasing plant diversity.