Climate and soil-age constraints on nutrient uplift and retention by plants

Stephen Porder, Oliver A Chadwick
Ecology 2009, 90 (3): 623-36
Plants and soils represent coevolving components of ecosystems, and while the effects of soils (e.g., nutrient availability) on plants have been extensively documented, the effect of plants on soils has received less attention. Furthermore there has been no systematic investigation of how plant effects vary across important ecological gradients in climate or soil age, which leaves a substantial gap in our understanding of how plant-soil systems develop. In this context, we analyzed changes in nutrient availability and elemental losses from the entire weathering zone at 35 sites arrayed across climatic and soil-age gradients on the island of Hawai'i. The sites are located on three basaltic lava flows (ages 10, 170, and 350 kyr) each of which crosses a precipitation gradient from approximately 500 to 2500 mm/yr. By comparing the loss of nutrient (potassium, phosphorus) and non-nutrient (e.g., sodium) rock-derived elements, we identify a climatic zone at intermediate rainfall where the retention of plant nutrients in the upper soil is most pronounced. We further show that there are several abiotic constraints on plant-driven retention of nutrients. At the dry sites (< or = 750 mm/yr on all three flows), plants slow the loss of nutrients, but the effect (as measured by the difference between K and Na losses) is small, perhaps because of low plant cover and productivity. At intermediate rainfall (750-1400 mm/yr) but negative water balance, plants substantially enrich both nutrient cations and P relative to Na in the surface horizons, an effect that remains strong even after 350 kyr of soil development. In contrast, at high rainfall (> or = 1500 mm/yr) and positive water balance, the effect of plants on nutrient distributions diminishes with soil age as leaching losses overwhelm the uplift and retention of nutrients by plants after 350 kyr of soil development. The effect of plants on soil nutrient distributions can also be mediated by the movement of iron (Fe), and substantial Fe losses at high rainfall on the older flows are highly correlated with P losses. Thus redox-driven redistribution of Fe may place a further abiotic constraint on nutrient retention by plants. In combination, these data indicate that the effects of soil aging on plant uplift and retention of nutrients differ markedly with precipitation, and we view this as a potentially fruitful area for future research.

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