, Volume 114, Issue 4, pp 556-562

Herbivore influence on soil microbial biomass and nitrogen mineralization in a northern grassland ecosystem: Yellowstone National Park

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Abstract

Microorganisms are largely responsible for soil nutrient cycling and energy flow in terrestrial ecosystems. Although soil microorganisms are affected by topography and grazing, little is known about how these two variables may interact to influence microbial processes. Even less is known about how these variables influence microorganisms in systems that contain large populations of free-roaming ungulates. In this study, we compared microbial biomass size and activity, as measured by in situ net N mineralization, inside and outside 35- to 40-year exclosures across a topographic gradient in northern Yellowstone National Park. The objective was to determine the relative effect of topography and large grazers on microbial biomass and nitrogen mineralization. Microbial C and N varied by almost an order of magnitude across sites. Topographic depressions that contained high plant biomass and fine-textured soils supported the greatest microbial biomass. We found that plant biomass accurately predicted microbial biomass across our sites suggesting that carbon inputs from plants constrained microbial biomass. Chronic grazing neither depleted soil C nor reduced microbial biomass. We hypothesize that microbial populations in grazed grasslands are sustained mainly by inputs of labile C from dung deposition and increased root turnover or root exudation beneath grazed plants. Mineral N fluxes were affected more by grazing than topography. Net N mineralization rates were highest in grazed grassland and increased from dry, unproductive to mesic, highly productive communities. Overall, our results indicate that topography mainly influences microbial biomass size, while mineral N fluxes (microbial activity) are affected more by grazing in this grassland ecosystem.