, Volume 151, Issue 4, pp 650-662
Date: 23 Jan 2007

Grazing-induced changes in plant composition affect litter quality and nutrient cycling in flooding Pampa grasslands

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Abstract

Changes in plant community composition induced by vertebrate grazers have been found to either accelerate or slow C and nutrient cycling in soil. This variation may reflect the differential effects of grazing-promoted (G+) plant species on overall litter quality and decomposition processes. Further, site conditions associated with prior grazing history are expected to influence litter decay and nutrient turnover. We studied how grazing-induced changes in plant life forms and species identity modified the quality of litter inputs to soil, decomposition rate and nutrient release in a flooding Pampa grassland, Argentina. Litter from G+ forbs and grasses (two species each) and grazing-reduced (G−) grasses (two species) was incubated in long-term grazed and ungrazed sites. G+ species, overall, showed higher rates of decomposition and N and P release from litter. However, this pattern was primarily driven by the low-growing, high litter-quality forbs included among G+ species. Forbs decomposed and released nutrients faster than either G+ or G− grasses. While no consistent differences between G+ and G− grasses were observed, patterns of grass litter decay and nutrient release corresponded with interspecific differences in phenology and photosynthetic pathway. Litter decomposition, N release and soil N availability were higher in the grazed site, irrespective of species litter type. Our results contradict the notion that grazing, by reducing more palatable species and promoting less palatable ones, should decrease nutrient cycling from litter. Plant tissue quality and palatability may not unequivocally link patterns of grazing resistance and litter decomposability within a community, especially where grazing causes major shifts in life form composition. Thus, plant functional groups defined by species’ “responses” to grazing may only partially overlap with functional groups based on species “effects” on C and nutrient cycling.

Communicated by Alan Knapp.