Plant Ecology

, Volume 209, Issue 1, pp 83–94 | Cite as

Spatial heterogeneity of soil nutrients and plant species in herb-dominated communities of contrasting land use

  • Frank S. Gilliam
  • David A. Dick


Recent interest in spatial pattern in terrestrial ecosystems has come from an awareness of the intimate relationship between spatial heterogeneity of soil resources and maintenance of plant species diversity. Soil and vegetation can vary spatially in response to several state factors of the system. In this study, we examined fine-scale spatial variability of soil nutrients and vascular plant species in contrasting herb-dominated communities (a pasture and an old field) to determine degree of spatial dependence among soil variables and plant community characteristics within these communities by sampling at 1-m intervals. Each site was divided into 25 1-m2 plots. Mineral soil was sampled (2-cm diameter, 5-cm depth) from each of four 0.25-m2 quarters and combined into a single composite sample per plot. Soil organic matter was measured as loss-on-ignition. Extractable NH4 and NO3 were determined before and after laboratory incubation (28 days at 27°C) to determine potential net N mineralization and nitrification. Cations were analyzed using inductively coupled plasma emission spectrometry. Vegetation was assessed using estimated percent cover. Most soil and plant variables exhibited sharp contrasts between pasture and old-field sites, with the old field having significantly higher net N mineralization/nitrification, pH, Ca, Mg, Al, plant cover, and species diversity, richness, and evenness. Multiple regressions revealed that all plant variables (species diversity, richness, evenness, and cover) were significantly related to soil characteristics (available nitrogen, organic matter, moisture, pH, Ca, and Mg) in the pasture; in the old field only cover was significantly related to soil characteristics (organic matter and moisture). Both sites contrasted sharply with respect to spatial pattern of soil variables, with the old field exhibiting a higher degree of spatial dependence. These results demonstrate that land-use practices can exert profound influence on spatial heterogeneity of both soil properties and vegetation in herb-dominated communities.


Herbaceous communities Soil nutrients Land-use history Spatial pattern Geostatistics 



This study was funded by Project ATI TRP 99-09 by the Nick J. Rahall II Appalachian Transportation Institute. We are grateful to Donnie Kinnan for his assistance in the field and laboratory. We are indebted to the plant taxonomic expertise of Dan Evans, Curator, Marshall University Herbarium (MUHW), for assistance in identifying plant specimens.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Biological SciencesMarshall UniversityHuntingtonUSA
  2. 2.West Virginia Department of AgriculturePlant Industries DivisionCharlestonUSA

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