, Volume 19, Issue 3, pp 521–533 | Cite as

Drivers of Variation in Aboveground Net Primary Productivity and Plant Community Composition Differ Across a Broad Precipitation Gradient

  • Kimberly J. La PierreEmail author
  • Dana M. Blumenthal
  • Cynthia S. Brown
  • Julia A. Klein
  • Melinda D. Smith


Aboveground net primary production (ANPP) is a key integrator of C uptake and energy flow in many terrestrial ecosystems. As such, ecologists have long sought to understand the factors driving variation in this important ecosystem process. Although total annual precipitation has been shown to be a strong predictor of ANPP in grasslands across broad spatial scales, it is often a poor predictor at local scales. Here we examine the amount of variation in ANPP that can be explained by total annual precipitation versus precipitation during specific periods of the year (precipitation periods) and nutrient availability at three sites representing the major grassland types (shortgrass steppe, mixed-grass prairie, and tallgrass prairie) spanning the broad precipitation gradient of the U.S. Central Great Plains. Using observational data, we found that precipitation periods and nutrient availability were much stronger predictors of site-level ANPP than total annual precipitation. However, the specific nutrients and precipitation periods that best predicted ANPP differed among the three sites. These effects were mirrored experimentally at the shortgrass and tallgrass sites, with precipitation and nutrient availability co-limiting ANPP, but not at the mixed-grass site, where nutrient availability determined ANPP exclusive of precipitation effects. Dominant grasses drove the ANPP response to increased nutrient availability at all three sites. However, the relative responses of rare grasses and forbs were greater than those of the dominant grasses to experimental nutrient additions, thus potentially driving species turnover with chronic nutrient additions. This improved understanding of the factors driving variation in ANPP within ecosystems spanning the broad precipitation gradient of the Great Plains will aid predictions of alterations in ANPP under future global change scenarios.


dominant species Great Plains nutrients Nutrient Network (NutNet) rare species precipitation periods 



Thanks are due to M. Avolio, C. Blair, C. Chang, C. Davis, L. Dev, K. Harmony, J. Kray, S. Koerner, A. Kuhl, A. Monty, P. O’Neil, M. Parsons, R. Ramundo, T. Schreck, and the SGS field crew for field assistance. M. Avolio, K. Gross, D. Post, O. Schmitz, and two anonymous reviewers provided helpful feedback on earlier drafts of the manuscript. K. La Pierre was supported by an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. Additional funding was provided by a Yale Institute for Biospheric Studies Center for Field Ecology Pilot Grant to K. La Pierre, Konza Prairie LTER (NSF-DEB-0823341), and Shortgrass Steppe LTER (NSF-DEB-1027319). This work was generated using data from three sites within the Nutrient Network, coordinated through Research Coordination Network funding from NSF to E. Borer and E. Seabloom (NSF-DEB-1042132). Nitrogen fertilizer was graciously donated by Crop Production Services, Loveland, CO.

Supplementary material

10021_2015_9949_MOESM1_ESM.doc (192 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOC 77 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kimberly J. La Pierre
    • 1
    • 6
    Email author
  • Dana M. Blumenthal
    • 2
  • Cynthia S. Brown
    • 3
  • Julia A. Klein
    • 4
  • Melinda D. Smith
    • 5
  1. 1.Department of Ecology and Evolutionary BiologyYale UniversityNew HavenUSA
  2. 2.Rangeland Resources Research Unit, U.S. Department of AgricultureAgricultural Research ServiceFort CollinsUSA
  3. 3.Department of Bioagricultural Sciences and Pest ManagementColorado State UniversityFort CollinsUSA
  4. 4.Department of Ecosystem Science and SustainabilityColorado State UniversityFort CollinsUSA
  5. 5.Department of Biology, Graduate Degree Program in EcologyColorado State UniversityFort CollinsUSA
  6. 6.Department of Integrative BiologyUniversity of California, BerkeleyBerkeleyUSA

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