Plant Effects on Spatial and Temporal Patterns of Nitrogen Cycling in Shortgrass Steppe
Because of the water-limited nature and discontinuous plant cover of shortgrass steppe, spatial patterns in ecosystem properties are influenced more by the presence or absence of plants than by plant type. However, plant type may influence temporal patterns of nutrient cycling between plant and soil. Plants having the carbon-3 (C3) or carbon-4 (C4) photosynthetic pathway differ in phenology as well as other attributes that affect nitrogen (N) cycling. We estimated net N mineralization rates and traced nitrogen-15 (15N) additions among plant and soil components during May, July, and September of 1995 in native plots of C3 plants, C4 plants, or mixtures of C3 and C4. Net N mineralization was significantly greater in C3 plots than in C4 plots during both July and September. C3 plots retained significantly more 15N in May than did mixed and C4 plots; these differences in 15N retention were due to greater 15N uptake by C3 plants than by C4 plants during May. There were no significant differences in total 15N retention among plant communities for July and September. Soil 15N was influenced more by presence or absence of plants than by type of plant; greater quantities of 15N remained in soil interspaces between plants than in soil directly under plants for July and September. Our results indicate that plant functional type (C3 versus C4) can affect both the spatial and the temporal patterns of N cycling in shortgrass steppe. Further research is necessary to determine how these intraseasonal differences translate to longer-term and coarser-scale effects of plants on N cycling, retention, and storage.
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