Exotic grass invasion alters potential rates of N fixation in Hawaiian woodlands
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Exotic grass invasion promotes fire which drives the conversion of native woodlands to exotic grasslands in the seasonally dry submontane forests of the island of Hawai'i. We compared potential rates of N fixation in an unburned forest site and a converted grassland site using the acetylene reduction assay. In addition to measuring rates of N fixation on separate and mixed substrates in each site, we tested the effect of abiotic factors on rates of N fixation of specific substrates. We hypothesized that rates of N fixation would be higher in the converted grassland site. N fixation estimates were 4.9 kg N ha−1 year−1 for the unburned forest, and 0.10 kg N ha−1 year−1 for the grassland site, so our hypothesis was rejected. The N fixation in the unburned forest occurs mostly on the leaf litter of native woody species. These substrates are absent from the grassland site, except for wood debris which was not consumed during the fires. No nitrogenase activity was detected in the rhizosphere and litter of grasses, the rhizospheres of shrubs or in soil. Although wood debris is not a significant contributor to the N fixed in the unburned forest, it contributes the majority of N fixed in the grassland. The response of nitrogenase activity to varying conditions of moisture and temperature suggests that microclimatic differences between sites do not control differences in N fixation activity; rather, these differences are due to the abundance of N-fixing substrates. The substantial decrease in N fixation activity after the conversion from woodland to grassland implies that ecosystem-level rates of N accretion are decreased by fire in these sites so much that the N lost during volatilization due to fire is not replenished over the long term by N fixation.
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