, Volume 139, Issue 3, pp 261–273 | Cite as

Quantifying the indirect effects of nitrogen deposition on grassland litter chemical traits

  • Shuang-Li Hou
  • Grégoire T. Freschet
  • Jun-Jie Yang
  • Yun-Hai Zhang
  • Jiang-Xia Yin
  • Yan-Yu Hu
  • Hai-Wei Wei
  • Xing-Guo Han
  • Xiao-Tao Lü


Litter chemical traits are one of the dominant controls on litter decomposition. Increasing atmospheric nitrogen (N) deposition is expected to alter litter chemical traits at the community level in both direct (altering intraspecific chemistry) and indirect ways (changing species abundance and composition). Compared to intraspecific changes, the role of changes in species composition in driving the responses of litter chemical traits to N enrichment has been seldom quantitatively addressed. We quantified the relative contribution of intraspecific changes versus changes in community composition on litter traits and how this would be influenced by the magnitude of N deposition by taking advantage of a long-term field N addition experiment in a semi-arid grassland with a wide range of N addition rates. Nitrogen deposition altered plant species abundance by facilitating the dominance of one species with a nutrient acquisitive strategy, producing higher quality litter and being more responsive to N addition at the intraspecific level. Overall, changes in species composition, intraspecific changes and their interaction all led to higher litter quality (higher N and lower lignin, cellulose and hemicellulose concentrations) under N deposition treatments. The relative contribution of species composition on the responses of litter chemical traits to N deposition also increased with N addition rate, ranging from 5 to 40% for litter N, and from 2 to ~ 30% for the three structural carbon components. Our results demonstrate the positive impacts of increasing N deposition on litter quality through changing intraspecific C and N chemistry and species turnover, which has potential consequences for litter decomposition and nutrient cycling in ecosystems. Further, we highlight the important contribution of shifts in species abundance to the plant-mediated biogeochemical responses to N deposition.


Nitrogen deposition Litter chemistry Species turnover Intraspecific variation Lignin Litter decomposition Community composition Nutrient cycling Semi-arid grassland 



We acknowledge the staff of the Inner Mongolia Grassland Ecosystem Research Station (IMGERS) for supporting this study. We thank Chenxi Tian, Sihan Liu, Yi Wu, and Yue Sun for assistance with laboratory work. We appreciate comments and suggestions from Dr. Scott Bridgham and anonymous reviewers, which help us improve the quality of this work. This work was supported by National Natural Science Foundation of China (31770503 and 31470505), the National Basic Research Program of China (2016YFC0500601 and 2015CB150802), Strategic Priority Research Program of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (XDB15010403), the Key Research Program from CAS (QYZDB-SSW-DQC006), and Youth Innovation Promotion Association CAS (2014174). Authors declare no conflict of interests.

Author contributions

XTL and XGH designed the research; SLH, JXY, YHZ, JXY, YYH, and HWW collected and analyzed the data; SLH, XTL, and GTF wrote the manuscript; all authors contributed critically to the drafts and gave final approval for publication.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Erguna Forest Steppe Ecotone Research Station, CAS Key Laboratory of Forest Ecology and Management, Institute of Applied EcologyChinese Academy of SciencesShenyangChina
  2. 2.University of Chinese Academy of SciencesBeijingChina
  3. 3.Centre d’Ecologie Fonctionnelle et Evolutive, UMR 5175 (CNRS – Université de Montpellier – Université Paul-Valéry, Montpellier – EPHE – IRD)MontpellierFrance
  4. 4.State Key Laboratory of Vegetation of Environmental Change, Institute of BotanyChinese Academy of SciencesBeijingChina
  5. 5.School of Life ScienceLiaoning UniversityShenyangChina

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