Litter production and breakdown in swamps dominated by palms (Arecaceae) in northeastern Costa Rica.
In Raffia (Raphia taedigera) palm-swamps, it is frequent to observe high mounds at the base of the palm clumps. These mounds are formed by the accumulation of litter and organic matter, or might result from upturned roots of wind-thrown trees. The mounds serve as anchorage site for the palms, and could be important for the establishment of woody tree species in the swamp. The formation of these mounds might be explained by the unequal accumulation of organic matter in the wetland, or by differences in decomposition rates between Raffia litter versus the litter produced in adjacent mixed forests. To distinguish between these hypotheses, I compared the spatial distribution of litter in a R. taedigera swamp with the litter distribution on an adjacent slope forest, where litter distribution is expected to be homogeneous. In addition, I compared decomposition rates of major components of fine litter in three different environments: two wetlands dominated by palms (R. taedigera and Manicaria saccifera) and a slope forest that experiences lower inundation effects. On the palm swamp, noticeable concentration of litter was observed near the bases of clumps of palm as opposed to the swamp floor. In the adjacent slope forest, the magnitude of the differences in the distribution of litter is small and there is no accumulation at the base of emergent trees. It was also found that litter production increases during heavy rains and storms that follow dry periods. The swamp environment, independent of the litter, showed significantly lower decomposition rates than the surrounding forest slope. Furthermore, R. taedigera litter decomposes as fast as the slope forest litter. Overall, these results suggest that resistance to decomposition is not a major factor in the formation of mounds at the bases of R. taedigera clumps. Instead, litter accumulation contributes to the formation of the mounds that rise above the surface of the swamp.