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Mosses contribute an average of 20 % of boreal upland forest net primary productivity and are frequently observed to degrade slowly compared to vascular plants. If this is caused primarily by the chemical complexity of their tissues, moss decomposition could exhibit high temperature sensitivity (measured as Q10) due to high activation energy, which would imply that soil organic carbon (SOC) stocks derived from moss remains are especially vulnerable to decomposition with warming. Alternatively, the physical structure of the moss cell-wall biochemical matrix could inhibit decomposition, resulting in low decay rates and low temperature sensitivity. We tested these hypotheses by incubating mosses collected from two boreal forests in Newfoundland, Canada, for 959 days at 5 ∘C and 18 ∘C, while monitoring changes in the moss tissue composition using total hydrolyzable amino acid (THAA) analysis and 13C nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy. Less than 40 % of C was respired in all incubations, revealing a large pool of apparently recalcitrant C. The decay rate of the labile fraction increased in the warmer treatment, but the total amount of C loss increased only slightly, resulting in low Q10 values (1.23–1.33) compared to L horizon soils collected from the same forests. NMR spectra were dominated by O-alkyl C throughout the experiment, indicating the persistence of potentially labile C. The accumulation of hydroxyproline (derived primarily from plant cell-wall proteins) and aromatic C indicates the selective preservation of biochemicals associated with the moss cell wall. This was supported by scanning electron microscope (SEM) images of the moss tissues, which revealed few changes in the physical structure of the cell wall after incubation. This suggests that the moss cell-wall matrix protected labile C from microbial decomposition, accounting for the low temperature sensitivity of moss decomposition despite low decay rates. Climate drivers of moss biomass and productivity, therefore, represent a potentially important regulator of boreal forest SOC responses to climate change that needs to be assessed to improve our understanding of carbon–climate feedbacks.

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Philben, M., Butler, S., Billings, S. A., Benner, R., Edwards, K. A., & Ziegler, S. E. (2018). Biochemical and structural controls on the decomposition dynamics of boreal upland forest moss tissues. Biogeosciences, 15(21), 6731–6746.

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