Frequent fire affects soil nitrogen and carbon in an African savanna by changing woody cover
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When tropical and sub-tropical ecosystems burn, considerable amounts of N present in the biomass fuel may be released. This ultimately results in a loss of fixed N to the atmosphere. It is often assumed that this volatilization loss of N with frequent fire will result in a reduction of plant-available N and total system N. By changing the amount of woody biomass fire may, however, also have indirect effects on N and C dynamics. Here we consider the effects of 50 years of frequent fire on total soil N and soil organic C (SOC) and total soil N in a mesic savanna in the Kruger National Park, South Africa. We also determine how changes in woody biomass may affect total soil N and SOC. We measured soil and fine root N and C concentrations as well as total soil N and SOC pools in four burning treatments, including fire exclusion, of a long-term fire experiment. Our results show that regardless of soil depth, fire treatment had no significant effect on total soil N and SOC. Our results also show that under trees total soil N and SOC concentrations of the surface soil increase, and pools of N and SOC increase to a depth of 7 cm. However, the extent to which soil N and C dynamics differed under canopies and away from canopies was dependent on fire treatment. Our results show that the effect of fire on soil N and C is mediated both through the indirect effect of changes in woody cover and the direct effects of fire (volatilization losses of nutrients). We suggest that woody thickening in this mesic savanna will have pronounced effects on long-term N and C dynamics.