Plant and Soil

, Volume 237, Issue 1, pp 117–127 | Cite as

Below-ground carbon and nitrogen accumulation in perennial grasses: A comparison of caespitose and rhizomatous growth forms

  • J.D. DernerEmail author
  • D.D. Briske


An experiment was conducted to compare below-ground soil organic carbon and total nitrogen accumulation between caespitose and rhizomatous perennial grasses in long-term (<25 yrs) grazed and ungrazed sites in semi-arid and mesic communities in the North American Great Plains. Development of greater nutrient pools beneath than between clones occurred at minimal clone basal areas (<60 cm2) for both caespitose species. Caespitose grasses accumulated substantially greater pools of carbon (20–200 fold) and nitrogen (50–500 fold) in soils to a depth of 10 cm beneath clones than rhizomatous grasses accumulated in rhizomes in both communities. Carbon and nitrogen pools in soils beneath caespitose clones exceeded combined (soil + rhizome) pools for rhizomatous grasses for a majority of the clone basal areas (>90 cm2) in the mesic community. In contrast, both pool sizes were smaller beneath the caespitose grass at all clone basal areas than the combined pools for the rhizomatous grass in the semi-arid community. The occurrence of larger soil nutrient pools beneath the rhizomatous species in the semi-arid community was largely a consequence of niche separation for microsites characterized by soils with higher nutrient concentrations, rather than plant-induced increases in nutrient concentrations. Although nutrient islands do not occur beneath rhizomatous grasses, their distribution in the semi-arid community was restricted to microsites characterized by soils with higher SOC and N concentrations. A greater efficiency of nutrient accumulation per unit rhizome mass and the maintenance of rhizome nutrient pools of similar magnitude to those of the rhizomatous grass in the mesic community may also contribute to the distribution of rhizomatous grasses in semi-arid communities. The existence of nutrient islands beneath a wide range of clone sizes in both mesic and semi-arid communities provides circumstantial evidence to suggest that nutrient islands beneath caespitose grasses may contribute to clone fitness in this growth form.

grazing islands of fertility nutrient accumulation nutrient islands shortgrass prairie tallgrass prairie 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Bark D 1987 Konza Prairie Research Natural Area, Kansas. In The Climates of the Long-Term Ecological Research Sites. Ed. D Greenland. pp 45–50. Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, Occasional Paper Number 44. University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado, USA.Google Scholar
  2. Burke I C, Lauenroth W K, Riggle R, Brannen P, Madigan B and Beard S 1999 Spatial variability of soil properties in the Shortgrass Steppe: The relative importance of topography, grazing, microsite and plant species in controlling spatial patterns. Ecosystems 2, 422–438.Google Scholar
  3. Burke I C, Lauenroth W K, Vinton M A, Hook P B, Kelly R H, Epstein H E, Aguiar M R, Robles M D, Aguilera M O, Murphy K L and Gill R A 1998 Plant-Soil interactions in temperate grasslands. Biogeochemistry 42, 121–143.Google Scholar
  4. Burke I C, Lauenroth W K and Milchunas D G 1997 Biogeochemistry of managed grasslands in central North America. In Soil Organic Matter in Temperate Agroecosystems. Eds. E A Paul, K Paustian, E T Elliot and C V Cole. pp 85–102. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Louisiana, USA.Google Scholar
  5. Burke I C, Lauenroth W K and Coffin D P 1995 Soil organic matter recovery in semiarid grasslands: Implications for the Conservation Reserve Program. Ecol. Appl. 5, 793–801.Google Scholar
  6. Butler J L and Briske D D 1988 Population structure and tiller demography of the bunchgrass Schizachyrium scoparium in response to herbivory. Oikos 51, 306–312.Google Scholar
  7. Chapin F S III, Schulze E D and Mooney H A 1990 The ecology and economics of storage in plants. Ann. Rev. Ecol. Syst. 21, 423–447.Google Scholar
  8. Cheplick G P and Gutierrez C M 2000 Clonal growth and storage in relation to competition in genets of the rhizomatous perennial Amphibromus scabrivalvis. Can. J. Bot. 78, 537–546.Google Scholar
  9. Derner J D and Briske D D 1999 Intraclonal regulation in a perennial caespitose grass: A field evaluation of above-and below-ground resource availability. J Ecol. 87, 737–747.Google Scholar
  10. Derner J D, Briske D D and Boutton T W 1997 Does grazing mediate soil carbon and nitrogen accumulation beneath C4, perennial grasses along an environmental gradient? Plant Soil 191, 147–156.Google Scholar
  11. Gatsuk L E, Smirnova 0 V, Vorontzova L I, Zaugolnova L B and Zhukova LA 1980 Age states of plants of various growth forms: A review. J. Ecol. 68, 675–696.Google Scholar
  12. Hartnett D C 1989 Density-and growth stage-dependent responses to defoliation in two rhizomatous grasses. Oecologia 80, 414–420.Google Scholar
  13. Heckathorn S A and DeLucia E H 1994 Drought-induced nitrogen retranslocation in perennial C4 grasses of tallgrass prairie. Ecology 75, 1877–1886.Google Scholar
  14. Hook P B, Burke I C and Lauenroth W K 1991 Heterogeneity of soil and plant N and C associated with individual plants and openings in North American shortgrass steppe. Plant Soil 138, 247–256.Google Scholar
  15. Jackson R B and Caldwell M M 1993 Geostatistical patterns of soil heterogeneity around individual perennial plants. J. Ecol. 81, 683–692.Google Scholar
  16. Kelly R H and Burke I C 1997 Heterogeneity of soil organic matter following death of individual plants in shortgrass steppe. Ecology 78, 1256–1261.Google Scholar
  17. Kelly R, Burke I C and Lauenroth W K 1996 Soil organic matter and nutrient availability responses to reduced plant inputs in shortgrass steppe. Ecology 77, 2516–2527.Google Scholar
  18. Knops J M H and Tilman D 2000 Dynamics of soil nitrogen and carbon accumulation for 61 years after agricultural abandonment. Ecology 81, 88–98.Google Scholar
  19. Lane, D R, Coffin D P and Lauenroth W K 2000 Changes in grassland canopy structure across a precipitation gradient. J. Appl. Sci. 11, 359–368.Google Scholar
  20. Lauenroth W K and Sala O E 1992 Long term forage production of North American shortgrass steppe. Ecol. Appl. 2, 397–403.Google Scholar
  21. Milchunas D G, Lauenroth W K, Chapman P L and Kazempour M K 1989 Effects of grazing, topography and precipitation on the structure of a semiarid grassland. Vegetatio 80, 11–23.Google Scholar
  22. Niewenhuize J, Maas Y E M and Middleburg J J 1994 Rapid analysis of organic carbon and nitrogen in particulate materials. Mar. Chem. 45, 217–224.Google Scholar
  23. Monson RK, Sackschewsky M R and Williams G J 1986 Field measurements of photosynthesis, water-use efficiency and growth in Agropyron smithii (C3) and Bouteloua gracilis (C4) in the Colorado shortgrass steppe. Oecologia 68, 400–409.Google Scholar
  24. Pfeiffer K E and Hartnett D C 1995 Bison selectivity and grazing response of little bluestem in tallgrass prairie. J. Range Manage. 48, 26–31.Google Scholar
  25. Rebele F 2000 Competition and coexistence of rhizomatous perennial plants along a nutrient gradient. Plant Ecol. 147, 77–94.Google Scholar
  26. Schlesinger W H, Raikes J A, Hartley A E and Cross A F 1996 On the spatial pattern of soil nutrients in desert ecosystems. Ecology 77, 364–374.Google Scholar
  27. Schuman G E, Reeder J D, Manley J T, Hart R H and Manley W A 1999 Impact of grazing management on the carbon and nitrogen balance of a mixed-grass rangeland. Ecol. Appl. 9, 65–71.Google Scholar
  28. Sims P L, Singh J S and Lauenroth W K 1978 The structure and function of ten western North American grasslands. I. Abiotic and vegetation characteristics. J. Ecol. 66, 251–281.Google Scholar
  29. Steel R G D & Torrie J H 1980 Principle and Procedures of Statistics. McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York, NY, USA. 633p.Google Scholar
  30. Suzuki J and Stuefer J F 1999 On the ecological and evolutionary significance of storage in clonal plants. Plant Species Biol. 14, 11–17.Google Scholar
  31. Vasquez de Aldana B R, Geerts R H E M and Berense F 1996 Nitrogen losses from perennial grass species. Oecologia 106, 137–143.Google Scholar
  32. Vinton M A and Burke I C 1995 Interactions between individual plant species and soil nutrient status in shortgrass steppe. Ecology 76, 1116–1133.Google Scholar
  33. Wedin D and Pastor J 1993 Nitrogen mineralization dynamics in grass monocultures. Oecologia 96, 186–192.Google Scholar
  34. Zak D R, Tilman D, Parmenter R R, Rice C W, Fisher F M, Vose J, Milchunas D and Martin C W 1994 Plant production and soil micro-organisms in late-successional ecosystems: A continentalscale study. Ecology 75, 2333–2347. Section editor: A. A. Meharg Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Grassland, Soil and Water Research LaboratoryUSDA-ARSTempleUSA
  2. 2.Department of Rangeland Ecology and ManagementTexas A&M UniversityCollege StationUSA

Personalised recommendations