Biogeochemical cycles in natural forest and conifer plantations in the high mountains of Colombia. Plant litter production and decomposition are two important processes in forest ecosystems, since they provide the main organic matter input to soil and regulate nutrient cycling. With the aim to study these processes, litterfall, standing litter and nutrient return were studied for three years in an oak forest (Quercus humboldtii), pine (Pinus patula) and cypress (Cupressus lusitanica) plantations, located in highlands of the Central Cordillera of Colombia. Evaluation methods included: fine litter collection at fortnightly intervals using litter traps; the litter layer samples at the end of each sampling year and chemical analyses of both litterfall and standing litter. Fine litter fall observed was similar in oak forest (7.5Mg ha/y) and in pine (7.8Mg ha/y), but very low in cypress (3.5Mg ha/y). Litter standing was 1.76, 1.73 and 1.3Mg ha/y in oak, pine and cypress, respectively. The mean residence time of the standing litter was of 3.3 years for cypress, 2.1 years for pine and 1.8 years for oak forests. In contrast, the total amount of retained elements (N, P, S, Ca, Mg, K, Cu, Fe, Mn and Zn) in the standing litter was higher in pine (115kg/ha), followed by oak (78kg/ha) and cypress (24kg/ha). Oak forests showed the lowest mean residence time of nutrients and the highest nutrients return to the soil as a consequence of a faster decomposition. Thus, a higher nutrient supply to soils from oaks than from tree plantations, seems to be an ecological advantage for recovering and maintaining the main ecosystem functioning features, which needs to be taken into account in restoration programs in this highly degraded Andean mountains.
Keywords: Tropical montane forests, litter production, standing litter, nutrient return, Quercus humboldtii.