Plant Ecology

, Volume 145, Issue 1, pp 27-36

Short-term patterns in water and nitrogen acquisition by two desert shrubs following a simulated summer rain

  • H. BassiriRadAffiliated withDepartment of Biological Sciences, University of Illinois at Chicago
  • , D.C. TremmelAffiliated withDepartment of Botany, Duke University
  • , R.A. VirginiaAffiliated withEnvironmental Studies Program, Dartmouth College
  • , J.F. ReynoldsAffiliated withDepartment of Botany, Duke University
  • , A.G. de SoyzaAffiliated withEnvironmental Research and Wildlife Development Agency
  • , M.H. BrunellAffiliated withDepartment of Biological Sciences, University of Illinois at Chicago

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A field experiment was conducted at the Jornada Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) site in the Chihuahuan Desert of New Mexico to compare the rapidity with which the shrubs Larrea tridentata and Prosopis glandulosa utilized water, CO2 and nitrogen (N) following a simulated summer rainfall event. Selected plants growing in a roughly 50-m2 area were assigned to treatment and control groups. Treatment plants received the equivalent of 3 cm of rain, while no supplemental water was added to the control plants. Xylem water potential (Ψx) and net assimilation rate (Anet) were evaluated one day before and one and three days after watering. To monitor short-term N uptake, soils around each plant were labeled with eight equally distant patches of enriched 15N before watering. Each tracer patch contained 20 ml of 20 mM 15 NH4 15NO3 (99 atom%) solution applied to the soil at 20 cm from the center of the plant at soil depths of 10 and 20 cm. Nitrogen uptake, measured as leaf δ15N, was evaluated at smaller time intervals and for a longer period than those used for Ψx and Anet. Both Anet and Ψx exhibited a significant recovery in watered vs. control Larrea plants within 3 days after the imposition of treatment, but no such recovery was observed in Prosopis in that period. Larrea also exhibited a greater capacity for N uptake following the rain. Leaf δ15N was five-fold greater in watered compared to unwatered Larrea plants within 2 days after watering, while foliar δ15N was not significantly different between the watered and unwatered Prosopis plants during the same period. Lack of a significant change in root 15 NO 3 uptake kinetics of Larrea, even three days after watering, indicated that the response of Larrea to a wetting pulse may have been due to a greater capacity to produce new roots. The differential ability of these potential competitors in rapidly acquiring pulses of improved soil resources following individual summer rainfall events may have significant implications for the dynamic nature of resource use in desert ecosystems.

δ15N Desert shrubs Nitrogen uptake Rain Rapid response Water uptake