Vascular plant 15N natural abundance in heath and forest tundra ecosystems is closely correlated with presence and type of mycorrhizal fungi in roots
- Cite this article as:
- Michelsen, A., Quarmby, C., Sleep, D. et al. Oecologia (1998) 115: 406. doi:10.1007/s004420050535
In this study we show that the natural abundance of the nitrogen isotope 15, δ15N, of plants in heath tundra and at the tundra-forest ecocline is closely correlated with the presence and type of mycorrhizal association in the plant roots. A total of 56 vascular plant species, 7 moss species, 2 lichens and 6 species of fungi from four heath and forest tundra sites in Greenland, Siberia and Sweden were analysed for δ15N and N concentration. Roots of vascular plants were examined for mycorrhizal colonization, and the soil organic matter was analysed for δ15N, N concentration and soil inorganic, dissolved organic and microbial N. No arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) colonizations were found although potential host plants were present in all sites. The dominant species were either ectomycorrhizal (ECM) or ericoid mycorrhizal (ERI). The δ15N of ECM or ERI plants was 3.5–7.7‰ lower than that of non-mycorrhizal (NON) species in three of the four sites. This corresponds to the results in our earlier study of mycorrhiza and plant δ15N which was limited to one heath and one fellfield in N Sweden. Hence, our data suggest that the δ15N pattern: NON/AM plants > ECM plants ≥ ERI plants is a general phenomenon in ecosystems with nutrient-deficient organogenic soils. In the fourth site, a␣birch forest with a lush herb/shrub understorey, the differences between functional groups were considerably smaller, and only the ERI species differed (by 1.1‰) from the NON species. Plants of all functional groups from this site had nearly twice the leaf N concentration as that found in the same species at the other three sites. It is likely that low inorganic N availability is a prerequisite for strong δ15N separation among functional groups. Both ECM roots and fruitbodies were 15N enriched compared to leaves which suggests that the difference in δ15N between plants with different kinds of mycorrhiza could be due to isotopic fractionation at the␣fungal-plant interface. However, differences in δ15N between soil N forms absorbed by the plants could also contribute to the wide differences in plant δ15N found in most heath and forest tundra ecosystems. We hypothesize that during microbial immobilization of soil ammonium the microbial N pool could become 15N-depleted and the remaining, plant-available soil ammonium 15N-enriched. The latter could be a main source of N for NON/AM plants which usually have high δ15N. In contrast, amino acids and other soil organic N compounds presumably are 15N-depleted, similar to plant litter, and ECM and ERI plants with high uptake of these N forms hence have low leaf δ15N. Further indications come from the δ15N of mosses and lichens which was similar to that of ECM plants. Tundra cryptogams (and ECM and ERI plants) have previously been shown to have higher uptake of amino acid than ammonium N; their low δ15N might therefore reflect the δ15N of free amino acids in the soil. The concentration of dissolved organic N was 3–16 times higher than that of inorganic N in the sites. Organic nitrogen could be an important N source for ECM and, in particular, ERI plants in heath and forest tundra ecosystems with low release rate of inorganic N from the soil organic matter.