, Volume 148, Issue 4, pp 564-572

Nitrogen response efficiency increased monotonically with decreasing soil resource availability: a case study from a semiarid grassland in northern China

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Abstract

The concept of nutrient use efficiency is central to understanding ecosystem functioning because it is the step in which plants can influence the return of nutrients to the soil pool and the quality of the litter. Theory suggests that nutrient efficiency increases unimodally with declining soil resources, but this has not been tested empirically for N and water in grassland ecosystems, where plant growth in these ecosystems is generally thought to be limited by soil N and moisture. In this paper, we tested the N uptake and the N use efficiency (NUE) of two Stipa species (S. grandis and S. krylovii) from 20 sites in the Inner Mongolia grassland by measuring the N content of net primary productivity (NPP). NUE is defined as the total net primary production per unit N absorbed. We further distinguished NUE from N response efficiency (NRE; production per unit N available). We found that NPP increased with soil N and water availability. Efficiency of whole-plant N use, uptake, and response increased monotonically with decreasing soil N and water, being higher on infertile (dry) habitats than on fertile (wet) habitats. We further considered NUE as the product of the N productivity (NP the rate of biomass increase per unit N in the plant) and the mean residence time (MRT; the ratio between the average N pool and the annual N uptake or loss). The NP and NUE of S. grandis growing usually in dry and N-poor habitats exceeded those of S. krylovii abundant in wet and N-rich habitats. NUE differed among sites, and was often affected by the evolutionary trade-off between NP and MRT, where plants and communities had adapted in a way to maximize either NP or MRT, but not both concurrently. Soil N availability and moisture influenced the community-level N uptake efficiency and ultimately the NRE, though the response to N was dependent on the plant community examined. These results show that soil N and water had exerted a great impact on the N efficiency in Stipa species. The intraspecific differences in N efficiency within both Stipa species along soil resource availability gradient may explain the differences in plant productivity on various soils, which will be conducive to our general understanding of the N cycling and vegetation dynamics in northern Chinese grasslands.

Communicated by Christian Körner