Disturbance Decouples Biogeochemical Cycles Across Forests of the Southeastern US

Abstract

Biogeochemical cycles are inherently linked through the stoichiometric demands of the organisms that cycle the elements. Landscape disturbance can alter element availability and thus the rates of biogeochemical cycling. Nitrification is a fundamental biogeochemical process positively related to plant productivity and nitrogen loss from soils to aquatic systems, and the rate of nitrification is sensitive to both carbon and nitrogen availability. Yet how these controls influence nitrification rates at the landscape scale is not fully elucidated. We, therefore, sampled ten watersheds with different disturbance histories in the southern Appalachian Mountains to examine effects on potential net nitrification rates. Using linear mixed model selection (AIC), we narrowed a broad suite of putative explanatory variables into a set of models that best explained landscape patterns in potential net nitrification. Forest disturbance history determined whether nitrification and nitrogen mineralization were correlated, with the effect apparently mediated by microbially available carbon. Undisturbed forests had higher available carbon, which uncoupled potential net nitrification from potential net nitrogen mineralization. In contrast, disturbed watersheds had lower available carbon, and nitrification rates were strongly correlated to those of nitrogen mineralization. These data suggest that a history of disturbance at the landscape scale reduces soil carbon availability, which increases ammonium availability to nitrifiers at the micro-scale. Landscape-level soil carbon availability then appears to determine the coupling of autotrophic (nitrification) and heterotrophic (nitrogen mineralization) biogeochemical processes, and hence the relationship between carbon and nitrogen cycling in soils.

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Acknowledgements

Funding was through a co-operative agreement from the USDA Forest Service, the Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory, and from the National Science Foundation to the Coweeta LTER. We thank David Keiser for field assistance. We also thank Stephen Hart and two anonymous reviewers for their improvements to this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Ashley D. Keiser.

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ADK, JDK, MAB conceived of the study. ADK performed the research. ADK and MAB analyzed the data and wrote the paper, with input from JDK.

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Keiser, A.D., Knoepp, J.D. & Bradford, M.A. Disturbance Decouples Biogeochemical Cycles Across Forests of the Southeastern US. Ecosystems 19, 50–61 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10021-015-9917-2

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Keywords

  • autotroph
  • carbon cycle
  • competition
  • disturbance
  • heterotroph
  • net nitrification
  • nitrogen cycle
  • nitrogen mineralization
  • scale-dependence
  • watershed ecology