, Volume 151, Issue 2, pp 190-205
Date: 18 Oct 2006

Positive interactions between nitrogen-fixing legumes and four different neighbouring species in a biodiversity experiment

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The importance of facilitative processes due to the presence of nitrogen-fixing legumes in temperate grasslands is a contentious issue in biodiversity experiments. Despite a multitude of studies of fertilization effects of legumes on associated nonfixers in agricultural systems, we know little about the dynamics in more diverse systems. We hypothesised that the identity of target plant species (phytometers) and the diversity of neighbouring plant species would affect the magnitude of such positive species interactions. We therefore sampled aboveground tissues of phytometers planted into all plots of a grassland biodiversity–ecosystem functioning experiment and analysed their N concentrations, δ15N values and biomasses. The four phytometer species (Festuca pratensis, Plantago lanceolata, Knautia arvensis and Trifolium pratensis) each belonged to one of the four plant functional groups used in the experiment and allowed the effects of diversity on N dynamics in individual species to be assessed. We found significantly lower δ15N values and higher N concentrations and N contents (amount of N per plant) in phytometer species growing with legumes, indicating a facilitative role for legumes in these grassland ecosystems. Our data suggest that the main driving force behind these facilitative interactions in plots containing legumes was reduced competition for soil nitrate (“nitrate sparing”), with apparent N transfer playing a secondary role. Interestingly, species richness (and to a lesser extent functional group number) significantly decreased δ15N values, N concentrations and N content irrespective of any legume effect. Possible mechanisms behind this effect, such as increased N mineralisation and nitrate uptake in more diverse plots, now need further investigation. The magnitude of the positive interactions depended on the identity of the phytometer species. Evidence for increased N uptake in communities containing legumes was found in all three nonlegume phytometer species, with a subsequent strong increase in biomass in the grass F. pratensis across all diversity levels, and a lesser biomass gain in P. lanceolata and K. arvensis. In contrast, the legume phytometer species T. pratense was negatively affected when other legumes were present in their host communities across all diversity levels.

Communicated by Christian Körner.