Interactive Effects of Vegetation Type and Topographic Position on Nitrogen Availability and Loss in a Temperate Montane Ecosystem
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Determining the fate of deposited nitrogen (N) in natural ecosystems remains a challenge. Heterogeneity of vegetation types and resulting plant–soil feedbacks interact with topo-hydrologic gradients to mediate spatial patterns of N availability and loss, yet net effects of variation in these two factors together across complex terrain remain unclear. Here we measured a suite of N-cycle pools and fluxes in sites that differed factorially in vegetation type (mixed forest vs. herbaceous) and topographic position (upslope vs. downslope) in a protected montane watershed near Salt Lake City, UT. Vegetation type was associated with large variation in N availability—herbaceous sites had larger NO3− pools, higher NO3−:NH4+ ratios, higher nitrification potentials, lower soil C:N values, enriched δ15N values, and lower microbial biomass compared to forests, especially those upslope. Downslope sites tended to exhibit higher N availability and indicators of N-cycle openness, but patterns were moderated by vegetation type. In downslope forest, soil NO3− depth profiles and higher foliar N content suggested trees were accessing deep soil N and transferring it to the surface via litterfall, while more deep soil NO3− but no change in surface or foliar N suggested herbaceous cover was not N limited or deeper N pools were not accessible. Soil NO3− leaching from below the rooting zone closely tracked N availability, revealing a link between N status and hydrologic loss as well as an important role for roots in N retention. NO3− isotopes did not reveal a similar link for gaseous losses (that is, denitrification), instead reflecting nitrification and/or transport dynamics. Together, these results suggest a coupled ecological, topo-hydrologic perspective can help assess the fate of N in complex landscapes.