Short-term soil inorganic N pulse after experimental fire alters invasive and native annual plant production in a Mojave Desert shrubland

Todd C Esque, Jason P Kaye, Sara E Eckert, Lesley A Defalco, C Richard Tracy
Oecologia 2010, 164 (1): 253-63
Post-fire changes in desert vegetation patterns are known, but the mechanisms are poorly understood. Theory suggests that pulse dynamics of resource availability confer advantages to invasive annual species, and that pulse timing can influence survival and competition among species. Precipitation patterns in the American Southwest are predicted to shift toward a drier climate, potentially altering post-fire resource availability and consequent vegetation dynamics. We quantified post-fire inorganic N dynamics and determined how annual plants respond to soil inorganic nitrogen variability following experimental fires in a Mojave Desert shrub community. Soil inorganic N, soil net N mineralization, and production of annual plants were measured beneath shrubs and in interspaces during 6 months following fire. Soil inorganic N pools in burned plots were up to 1 g m(-2) greater than unburned plots for several weeks and increased under shrubs (0.5-1.0 g m(-2)) more than interspaces (0.1-0.2 g m(-2)). Soil NO(3) (-)-N (nitrate-N) increased more and persisted longer than soil NH(4) (+)-N (ammonium-N). Laboratory incubations simulating low soil moisture conditions, and consistent with field moisture during the study, suggest that soil net ammonification and net nitrification were low and mostly unaffected by shrub canopy or burning. After late season rains, and where soil inorganic N pools were elevated after fire, productivity of the predominant invasive Schismus spp. increased and native annuals declined. Results suggest that increased N availability following wildfire can favor invasive annuals over natives. Whether the short-term success of invasive species following fire will direct long-term species composition changes remains to be seen, yet predicted changes in precipitation variability will likely interact with N cycling to affect invasive annual plant dominance following wildfire.

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