Effects of plant diversity, N fertilization, and elevated carbon dioxide on grassland soil N cycling in a long-term experiment

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The effects of global environmental changes on soil nitrogen (N) pools and fluxes have consequences for ecosystem functions such as plant productivity and N retention. In a 13-year grassland experiment, we evaluated how elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), N fertilization, and plant species richness alter soil N cycling. We focused on soil inorganic N pools, including ammonium and nitrate, and two N fluxes, net N mineralization and net nitrification. In contrast with existing hypotheses, such as progressive N limitation, and with observations from other, often shorter, studies, elevated CO2 had relatively static and small, or insignificant, effects on soil inorganic N pools and fluxes. Nitrogen fertilization had inconsistent effects on soil N transformations, but increased soil nitrate and ammonium concentrations. Plant species richness had increasingly positive effects on soil N transformations over time, likely because in diverse subplots the concentrations of N in roots increased over time. Species richness also had increasingly positive effects on concentrations of ammonium in soil, perhaps because more carbon accumulated in soils of diverse subplots, providing exchange sites for ammonium. By contrast, subplots planted with 16 species had lower soil nitrate concentrations than less diverse subplots, especially when fertilized, probably due to greater N uptake capacity of subplots with 16 species. Monocultures of different plant functional types had distinct effects on N transformations and nitrate concentrations, such that not all monocultures differed from diverse subplots in the same manner. The first few years of data would not have adequately forecast the effects of N fertilization and diversity on soil N cycling in later years; therefore, the dearth of long-term manipulations of plant species richness and N inputs is a hindrance to forecasting the state of the soil N cycle and ecosystem functions in extant plant communities.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1249-1261
Number of pages13
JournalGlobal change biology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2013


  • Ammonium
  • Monocultures
  • Nitrate
  • Nitrification
  • Nitrogen mineralization
  • Root biomass
  • Root nitrogen
  • Species richness
  • Temporal


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