, Volume 158, Issue 2, pp 127-137

Associations between vegetation patterns and soil texture in the shortgrass steppe

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Abstract

A recent conceptual model of controls on vegetation structure in semiarid regions includes the hypothesis that the balance between the dominance of woody and herbaceous species is partly controlled by soil texture. The model predicts that the dominance of woody plants is associated with coarse textured soils, and that ecotones between woody and herbaceous plant functional types are associated with soil textural changes. We analyzed vegetation and soil data (from US Soil Conservation Service maps) for an area of shortgrass steppe in Northern Weld County, Colorado, in a canonical correlation procedure to test the hypothesis at a regional scale. In support of the model, we found significant correlations between (a) a canonical vegetation variable correlated with C3 grass biomass and shrub biomass, and a canonical soil variable correlated with sandy topsoils, and (b) a canonical vegetation variable correlated with succulent biomass, and a canonical soil variable correlated with clay soils. Relatively sharp transitions between shrub- and grass-dominated vegetation types occur in a number of areas in the shortgrass steppe of northeastern Colorado and southeastern Wyoming, and we selected four sites to test the above hypothesis at a local scale. We gathered data on vegetation cover and soil texture from transects (50 m long) positioned across the transition zones from grassland to shrubland. We conducted a further canonical correlation analysis of the vegetation and soil data to test for the relationships between vegetation structure and soil texture, and a performed regression analyses on individual site data to describe site-specific relationships between vegetation and soil texture variables. Vegetation structure along the transects, at the level of plant functional types, was similar at all four sites. The transition from grassland to shrubland encompassed a change from a C4 grass/half-shrub complex to a shrub/C3 grass/succulent complex. At two of the sites these transitions were associated with a change to coarser-textured soils in the shrubland zone. Within the context of the shortgrass steppe, our overall findings support the predictions of the conceptual at a regional scale, but indicate that soil texture is only one factor that can influence vegetation structure at the local scale.