In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Decomposition

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Defining Decomposition
  • Classic and Historical Treatments
  • Foundational Works
  • Contemporary Views
  • Standard Methods
  • Fitting Decomposition Data to Models
  • Nutrients and the Decomposition Process
  • Home-Field Advantage
  • Substrate Chemistry and Characteristics
  • Local-Scale Influences on Decomposition
  • Microbial Breakdown of Litter
  • Invertebrate Processing of Litter
  • Species Dominance Shifts in Ecosystems
  • Soil CO2 Emissions and Atmospheric Relationships
  • Latitudinal Climate and Spatial Gradients
  • Anthropogenic Changes
  • Natural and Altered Ecosystems
  • Peat Deposition and Soil Organic Matter Formation and Accumulation

Ecology Decomposition
Beth A. Middleton
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0123


A cornerstone of ecosystem ecology, decomposition was recognized as a fundamental process driving the exchange of energy in ecosystems by early ecologists such as the authors Lindeman 1942 and Odum 1960 (cited under Classic and Historical Treatments). In the history of ecology, broad studies of decomposition were incorporated into the International Biological Program in the 1960s to compare the nature of organic matter breakdown in various ecosystem types (see Classic and Historical Treatments). Such studies still have an important role in ecological studies of the early 21st century. More recent refinements have brought debates on the relative role of microbes, invertebrates, and environment in the breakdown and release of carbon into the atmosphere, as well as how nutrient cycling, production, and other ecosystem processes regulated by decomposition may shift with climate change. Therefore, this bibliography examines the primary literature related to organic matter breakdown, but it also explores topics in which decomposition plays a key supporting role including vegetation composition, latitudinal gradients, altered ecosystems, anthropogenic impacts, carbon storage, and climate change models. Knowledge of these topics is relevant not only to the study of ecosystem ecology but also to projections of future conditions for human societies.

General Overviews

A few articles and books look at the overall role of decomposition and its relationship to ecosystem processes, including Cummins 1974; Swift, et al. 1979; Hättenschwiler, et al. 2005; and Swan and Kominoski 2012. General discussions of decomposition adopt an ecosystems viewpoint on the relative importance of either species or functional group types in the decomposition process. The functional group perspective used in Cummins 1974 and Hättenschwiler, et al. 2005 considers that all species of a particular functional type have similar attributes with respect to ecosystem function.

  • Cummins, Kenneth W. 1974. Structure and function of stream ecosystems. BioScience 24:631–641.

    DOI: 10.2307/1296676

    Discusses the importance of using a functional group rather than species-level approach in the study of ecosystem function, especially in the study of stream ecology. Organic matter of a functional type in a stream comes from primary production in the entire watershed, and this material is decomposed to supply soil and atmospheric cycles with carbon and nutrients.

  • Dickinson, C. H., and G. J. F. Pugh, eds. 1974a. Biology of plant litter decomposition. Vol. 1. London: Academic Press.

    A collection of seven chapters on the nature of decomposition of various types of plant litter including lower plants, herbaceous plants, angiosperm and conifer leaf litter, wood, roots, and litter after ingestion by herbivores.

  • Dickinson, C. H., and G. J. F. Pugh, eds. 1974b. Biology of plant litter decomposition. Vol. 2. London: Academic Press.

    A second collection of twenty-four chapters on basic topics including organisms (bacteria, various fungi, detritivores) and important environments (soil, freshwater, marine, crop, and urban systems) involved in decomposition.

  • Hättenschwiler, Stephan, Alexei V. Tiunov, and Stefan Scheu. 2005. Biodiversity and litter decomposition in terrestrial ecosystems. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics 36:191–218.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.ecolsys.36.112904.151932

    Keystone microbial and fungal functional groups affect the rates of decomposition, although the role of particular species within functional groups is not clear. Carbon and nutrient turnover rates are affected by the type of litter as well as decomposer diversity. Experiments to manipulate the level of litter and decomposer diversity are warranted to determine their feedbacks to the overall process of decomposition.

  • Swan, Christopher M., and John S. Kominoski. 2012. Biodiversity and ecosystem function of decomposition. eLS. Chichester, UK: Wiley.

    The book gives general information on the role of organic matter decomposition in ecosystem processes including soil formation and food web support. Considers how chemical differences of litter types influence microbial and detritivoral breakdown of organic matter, and further, how dominance over time may drive changes in ecosystem processes. Available online.

  • Swift, M. J., O. W. Heal, and J. M. Anderson. 1979. Decomposition in terrestrial ecosystems. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    Basic concepts are necessary to support an overall understanding of the decomposition process, and this book has information on all aspects of the process including litter breakdown, leaching of soluble components, and comminution or physical fragmentation. The book contains very good information for researchers and students of the discipline.

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