Inorganic N turnover and availability in annual- and perennial-dominated soils in a northern Utah shrub-steppe ecosystem
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The exotic annual grass Bromus tectorum has replaced thousands of hectares of native perennial vegetation in semi-arid ecosystems of the western United States. Inorganic N availability and production were compared in soil from monodominant patches of Bromus tectorum, the perennial bunchgrass Elymus elymoides, and the shrub Artemisia tridentata, in Curlew Valley, a salt-desert shrub site in Northern Utah. Bromus-dominated soil had greater %N in the top 10 cm than Artemisia or Elymus-dominated soils. As determined by spring isotope-dilution assays, gross mineralization and nitrification rates were higher in Bromus-dominated than Artemisia-dominated soils, but gross rates of NH4+ and NO3− consumption were also higher. Litterbags had greater mass loss and N mineralization when buried in Bromus stands than in Artemisia stands, indicating the soil environment under the annual grass promotes decomposition. As determined by nitrification potential assays, nitrifier populations were higher under Bromus than under Artemisia and Elymus. Soil inorganic N concentrations were similar among vegetation types in the spring, but NO3− accumulated under Bromus once it had senesced. An in situ net mineralization assay conducted in autumn indicated that germinating Bromus seedlings are a strong sink for soil NO3−, and that net nitrification is inherently low in soils under Artemisia and Elymus. Results of the study suggest that differences in plant uptake and the soil environment promote greater inorganic N availability under Bromus than under perennial species at the site.
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