Above- and belowground responses to nitrogen addition in a Chihuahuan Desert grassland

Laura M Ladwig, Scott L Collins, Amaris L Swann, Yang Xia, Michael F Allen, Edith B Allen
Oecologia 2012, 169 (1): 177-85
Increased available soil nitrogen can increase biomass, lower species richness, alter soil chemistry and modify community structure in herbaceous ecosystems worldwide. Although increased nitrogen availability typically increases aboveground production and decreases species richness in mesic systems, the impacts of nitrogen additions on semiarid ecosystems remain unclear. To determine how a semiarid grassland responds to increased nitrogen availability, we examined plant community structure and above- and belowground net primary production in response to long-term nitrogen addition in a desert grassland in central New Mexico, USA. Plots were fertilized annually (10 g N m(-2)) since 1995 and NPP measured from 2004 to 2009. Differences in aboveground NPP between fertilized and control treatments occurred in 2004 following a prescribed fire and in 2006 when precipitation was double the long-term average during the summer monsoon. Presumably, nitrogen only became limiting once drought stress was alleviated. Belowground NPP was also related to precipitation, and greatest root growth occurred the year following the wettest summer, decreasing gradually thereafter. Belowground production was unrelated to aboveground production within years and unrelated to nitrogen enrichment. Species richness changed between years in response to seasonal precipitation variability, but was not altered by nitrogen addition. Community structure did respond to nitrogen fertilization primarily through increased abundance of two dominant perennial grasses. These results were contrary to most nitrogen addition studies that find increased biomass and decreased species richness with nitrogen fertilization. Therefore, factors other than nitrogen deposition, such as fire or drought, may play a stronger role in shaping semiarid grassland communities than soil fertility.

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