Research: Invertebrates Key in Global Forest Litter Breakdown (2024)

Termites are crucial for maintaining a healthy ecosystem. Image credit: Shutterstock.

The University of Hong Kong (HKU) has studied the role of invertebrates in forest litter decomposition. The study, led by researchers PhD candidate Xiaoyi ZENG and Professor Louise A ASHTON from the School of Biological Sciences at HKU, illustrates the significant contribution of soil invertebrates, specifically termites, to forest litter decomposition in tropical and subtropical regions. The study was recently published in Ecology Letters, and the results are imperative for preserving healthy ecosystems and conserving invertebrates in the wake of widespread environmental change.

Research Background

Litter decomposition is a crucial process in carbon cycling and nutrient turnover. Microbes, such as bacteria and fungi, are widely considered the most important decomposers in nature. However, soil invertebrates contribute a large proportion of decomposing and nutrient turnover and are therefore important for functioning and healthy ecosystems. Most previous studies on decomposition and nutrient turnover are conducted in temperate regions like Europe and North America, resulting in a biased perspectives and substantial knowledge gaps regarding the roles of invertebrates in global ecosystem processes.

A major invertebrate decomposer in the tropics are termites, which is often viewed only as pests to humans. However, termites are important ecological engineers in the tropics, helping to break down organic matter and redistribute nutrients. Termite dominance in the tropics, as opposed to temperate regions, should result in differences across regions regarding invertebrate decomposition, but this has not been well established.


In this study, the HKU research team included 476 case studies from 93 sites across the globe. A meta-analysis approach was used to assess the regional differences in forest litter decomposition mediated by invertebrates. The results showed that invertebrates contributed 31% to global forest litter decomposition, and the contribution of soil invertebrates in tropical and subtropical forests was 1.4 times higher than that in temperate and boreal forests. Termites, together with warm and humid climate contributed to the greater decomposition in tropical and subtropical forests.

This study highlights the global importance of invertebrates in driving the decomposition of forest litter, particularly in tropical and subtropical regions. However, the contribution of invertebrates to forest litter decomposition may be underestimated due to the current regional sampling bias. Additionally, this study highlights the importance of termites in nutrient cycling. Many still consider termites as crop pests and widely use insecticides to reduce termite abundance. Conservation of invertebrates in tropical and subtropical regions is crucial for maintaining ecosystem services, given the widespread environmental change in these areas.

Therefore, this study stresses the need to integrate invertebrate functions into earth system models as they contribute approximately 31% of global forest litter decomposition. An extensive and standardised data collection is of great value to develop global database of soil biodiversity and improve the predictive power of earth system models. Furthermore, forest management approaches that focus on insecticide use to control termite populations may have unintended consequences on ecosystem functioning (e.g. nutrient cycling). Instead, forest managers should consider conservation strategies that protect invertebrate populations and promote sustainable forest management practices.

'This study shows that invertebrates are essential for decomposition, keeping ecosystems working by breaking down dead organic material. Invertebrates like termites are particularly important in the tropics and sub-tropics where most biodiversity occurs. Invertebrate biodiversity is threatened by human activities such as climate change, habitat loss and pollution. It is essential we mitigate biodiversity loss in order to maintain healthy, functioning ecosystems into the future,' said Professor Louise Ashton, Assistant Professor of HKU School of Biological Sciences.

The journal paper 'Global contribution of invertebrates to forest litter decomposition' can be accessed at:


This study conducted by the Biodiversity and Environmental Change Lab at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) ( The Biodiversity and Environmental Change Lab is led by Professor Lousie A Ashton. The lab is dedicated to research exploring insect biodiversity and ecosystem function and understanding ecological responses to environmental change. This study was conducted by Xiaoyi Zeng (PhD student) as the first author and Professor Louise Ashton as the corresponding author. The co-authors include Huilin Gao from the Faculty of Business and Economics (HKU), Runxi Wang and Bartosz Majcher from the School of Biological Sciences (HKU), Dr Cheng Wenda at Sun Yat-sen University, and research teams from the University of Liverpool, the Natural History Museum, London, and the University of Bristol in the UK. This research was supported by the General Research Fund from the Hong Kong Research Grants Council.

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Research: Invertebrates Key in Global Forest Litter Breakdown (2024)


Are soil invertebrates key drivers of litter decomposition in tropical forests? ›

We found that (1) invertebrate contributions to litter decomposition are 1.4 times higher in tropical and subtropical forests than in forests elsewhere, with an overall contribution of 31% to global forest litter decomposition; and (2) termite diversity, together with warm, humid and acidic environments in the tropics ...

Why are invertebrates important to the environment? ›

The services they perform—pollinating, dispersing seeds, becoming food for wildlife, recycling nutrients, cleaning water, building reefs—are critical to life on our planet. Without them whole ecosystems would collapse. Yet invertebrates are often imperiled by human activities.

What is the role of invertebrates on leaf litter decomposition in streams? ›

Leaves entering low order streams are subject to physical abrasion, microbial degradation and invertebrate fragmentation. Aquatic invertebrates feeding on leaves are known as shredders and their densities tend to be correlated with the spatial and temporal accumulation of organic matter in streams.

What are the 4 main drivers of tropical forest degradation? ›

Surprisingly, all of this is true. Just four commodities—beef, soy, palm oil, and wood products—drive the majority of tropical deforestation.

Why are invertebrates important to the forest? ›

These animals often form the basis of food chains and are a critical part of healthy, functioning ecosystems. Insects are the largest and most diverse group of invertebrates, serving as important pollinators, controlling vegetation, helping to decompose plants and animals, and providing food for wildlife.

What is the role of invertebrates in research? ›

They can help monitor changes in ecosystems and distinguish between natural variability and human impact. Additionally, macroinvertebrates play a crucial role in transferring energy and materials through the food chain, making them important for understanding trophic structures and pathways in marine ecosystems.

What impact does climate change have on invertebrates? ›

Invertebrates are ectotherms and their growth rates are directly dependent on environmental temperatures; being small, they are also highly susceptible to desiccation (Andrewartha & Birch 1954). Changes in temperature and rainfall régimes thus are likely to have major direct effects on invertebrate distributions.

What is the role of invertebrates in decomposition? ›

We found that (1) invertebrate contributions to litter decomposition are 1.5 times higher in tropical forests than forests outside the tropics, with an overall contribution of 31% to global forest litter decomposition; and (2) invertebrate diversity, particularly of termites, together with warm, humid and acidic ...

What are the main drivers of decomposition? ›

The speed at which the decomposition occurs, called the "rate of decomposition", depends on the temperature, moisture and chemical composition of the organic matter. If the temperature is too low, or too high, fungi and bacteria cannot grow and the rate of decomposition is slow.

What are the decomposers of a tropical forest? ›

Decomposers, such as termites, slugs, scorpions, worms, and fungi, thrive on the forest floor. Organic matter falls from trees and plants, and these organisms break down the decaying material into nutrients. The shallow roots of rainforest trees absorb these nutrients, and dozens of predators consume the decomposers!

What is litter production and decomposition in the tropical forest? ›

Plant litter production and decomposition is a crucial ecosystem process that defines and governs the plant-soil relationships by regulating the nutrient turnover and the build-up of soil organic matter. Litter is the principal source of organic matter for soils in the forest ecosystem.


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