Remotely detected aboveground plant function predicts belowground processes in two prairie diversity experiments

Jeannine Cavender-Bares, Anna K Schweiger, John A. Gamon, Hamed Gholizadeh, Kimberly Helzer, Cathleen Lapadat, Michael D. Madritch, Philip A. Townsend, Zhihui Wang, Sarah E. Hobbie

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13 Scopus citations


Imaging spectroscopy provides the opportunity to incorporate leaf and canopy optical data into ecological studies, but the extent to which remote sensing of vegetation can enhance the study of belowground processes is not well understood. In terrestrial systems, aboveground and belowground vegetation quantity and quality are coupled, and both influence belowground microbial processes and nutrient cycling. We hypothesized that ecosystem productivity, and the chemical, structural and phylogenetic-functional composition of plant communities would be detectable with remote sensing and could be used to predict belowground plant and soil processes in two grassland biodiversity experiments: the BioDIV experiment at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve in Minnesota and the Wood River Nature Conservancy experiment in Nebraska. We tested whether aboveground vegetation chemistry and productivity, as detected from airborne sensors, predict soil properties, microbial processes and community composition. Imaging spectroscopy data were used to map aboveground biomass, green vegetation cover, functional traits and phylogenetic-functional community composition of vegetation. We examined the relationships between the image-derived variables and soil carbon and nitrogen concentration, microbial community composition, biomass and extracellular enzyme activity, and soil processes, including net nitrogen mineralization. In the BioDIV experiment—which has low overall diversity and productivity despite high variation in each—belowground processes were driven mainly by variation in the amount of organic matter inputs to soils. As a consequence, soil respiration, microbial biomass and enzyme activity, and fungal and bacterial composition and diversity were significantly predicted by remotely sensed vegetation cover and biomass. In contrast, at Wood River—where plant diversity and productivity were consistently higher—belowground processes were driven mainly by variation in the quality of aboveground inputs to soils. Consequently, remotely sensed functional, chemical and phylogenetic composition of vegetation predicted belowground extracellular enzyme activity, microbial biomass, and net nitrogen mineralization rates but aboveground biomass (or cover) did not. The contrasting associations between the quantity (productivity) and quality (composition) of aboveground inputs with belowground soil attributes provide a basis for using imaging spectroscopy to understand belowground processes across productivity gradients in grassland systems. However, a mechanistic understanding of how above and belowground components interact among different ecosystems remains critical to extending these results broadly.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere01488
JournalEcological Monographs
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The project was funded by NSF/NASA DEB‐1342872; the NSF Biology Integration Institute ASCEND, DBI: 2021898; and the Cedar Creek Long Term Ecological Research Program through NSF DEB 1831944. AKS acknowledges support by the University Research Priority Program Global Change and Biodiversity of the University of Zurich. We thank Ian Carriere, Brett Fredericksen, Jesús Pinto‐Ledezma, Chris Buyarski, Troy Mielke, Shan Kothari, and numerous Cedar Creek research interns for field and laboratory assistance, Laura Williams for assistance with scripting and Lauren Cline for organization of and access to fungal and soil data in BioDIV.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 The Authors. Ecological Monographs published by Wiley Periodicals LLC on behalf of Ecological Society of America.

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