, Volume 138, Issue 2, pp 247-256

Heterogeneity of soil and plant N and C associated with individual plants and openings in North American shortgrass steppe

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Small-scale spatial heterogeneity of soil organic matter (SOM) associated with patterns of plant cover can strongly influence population and ecosystem dynamics in dry regions but is not well characterized for semiarid grasslands. We evaluated differences in plant and soil N and C between soil from under individual grass plants and from small openings in shortgrass steppe. In samples from 0 to 5 cm depth, root biomass, root N, total and mineralizable soil N, total and respirable organic C, C:N ratio, fraction of organic C respired, and ratio of respiration to N mineralization were significantly greater for soil under plants than soil from openings. These differences, which were consistent for two sites with contrasting soil textures, indicate strong differentiation of surface soil at the scale of individual plants, with relative enrichment of soil under plants in total and active SOM. Between-microsite differences were substantial relative to previously reported differences associated with landscape position and grazing intensity in shortgrass steppe. We conclude that microscale heterogeneity in shortgrass steppe deserves attention in investigation of controls on ecosystem and population processes and when sampling to estimate properties at plot or site scales.