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Nitrogen Controls on Fine Root Substrate Quality in Temperate Forest Ecosystems

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Nitrogen controls on fine root substrate quality (that is, nitrogen and carbon-fraction concentrations) were assessed using nitrogen availability gradients in the Harvard Forest chronic nitrogen addition plots, University of Wisconsin Arboretum, Blackhawk Island, Wisconsin, and New England spruce-fir transect. The 27 study sites encompassed within these four areas collectively represented a wide range of nitrogen availability (both quantity and form), soil types, species composition, aboveground net primary production, and climatic regimes. Changes in fine root substrate quality among sites were most frequently and strongly correlated with nitrate availability. For the combined data set, fine root nitrogen concentration increased (adjusted R 2 = 0.46, P < 0.0001) with increasing site nitrate availability. Fine root “extractive” carbon-fraction concentrations decreased (adjusted R 2 = 0.32, P < 0.0002), “acid-soluble” compounds increased (adjusted R 2 = 0.35, P < 0.0001), and the “acid-insoluble” carbon fraction remained relatively high and stable (combined mean of 48.7 ± 3.1% for all sites) with increasing nitrate availability. Consequently, the ratio of acid-insoluble C–total N decreased (adjusted R 2 = 0.40, P < 0.0001) along gradients of increasing nitrate availability. The coefficients of determination for significant linear regressions between site nitrate availability and fine root nitrogen and carbon-fraction concentrations were generally higher for sites within each of the four study areas. Within individual study sites, tissue substrate quality varied between roots in different soil horizons and between roots of different size classes. However, the temporal variation of fine root substrate quality indices within specific horizons was relatively low. The results of this study indicate that fine root substrate quality increases with increasing nitrogen availability and thus supports the substrate quality component of a hypothesized conceptual model of nitrogen controls on fine root dynamics that maintains that fine root production, mortality, substrate quality, and decomposition increase with nitrogen availability in forest ecosystems in a manner that is analogous to foliage.

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Hendricks, J., Aber, J., Nadelhoffer, K. et al. Nitrogen Controls on Fine Root Substrate Quality in Temperate Forest Ecosystems. Ecosystems 3, 57–69 (2000).

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