Nutrient additions cause divergence of tallgrass prairie plant communities resulting in loss of ecosystem stability

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Jun 20, 2016
Author: 
Koerner, S. E., Avolio, M. L., La Pierre, K. J., Wilcox, K. R., Smith, M. D., & Collins, S. L.

Summary

  1. Nitrogen (N) deposition and phosphorus (P) deposition due to pollution and land-use change are dramatically altering biogeochemical cycles. These altered nutrient inputs affect plant communities by generally increasing dominance and reducing diversity, as well as altering community variability (heterogeneity). Less well studied are the effects of changes in community variability on ecosystem functions, such as productivity, or the stability of those functions.
  2. Here, we use a twelve-year nutrient addition experiment in tallgrass prairie to determine the variability in community responses to N and P additions and link these responses to ecosystem productivity and stability. We added two levels of N and four levels of P in a fully factorial design to 25-m2 plots in native tallgrass prairie in north-eastern Kansas, USA. Each year percentage cover of each species was measured in June and August in a 1-m2 subplot of each plot, and annual net primary productivity was measured in two 0.1-m2 subplots in each plot at the end of each growing season.
  3. The addition of N and P together increased plant community variability across space (i.e. the replicates were significantly more different from each other in the N + P treatments than they were in the control treatment). We also found that the variability of the plant community within a single plot through time increased with the addition of N alone and N and P together. The highest level of both spatial and temporal variability occurred in plots with the highest level of nutrient addition (10 g m−2 of both N and P).
  4. While we found no linkage between spatial variability of community composition and the spatial stability of productivity, the temporal stability of productivity decreased with increasing temporal plant community variability. Additionally, the ability to predict the productivity response to growing season precipitation, a key environmental variable, also decreased under higher temporal community variability.
  5. Synthesis. Using a 12-year nutrient addition experiment, we found that nutrient addition leads to both spatial and temporal community variability in mesic tallgrass prairie. The changes in community variability through time were directly related to ecosystem stability. While overall shifts in community structure in response to nutrient additions are important, the change in variability of local communities has significant implications for our ability to predict how patterns of biodiversity and ecosystem function will respond to a rapidly changing world.

Read the full article in the Journal of Ecology.

Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 
DOI for citing: 
DOI: 10.1111/1365-2745.12610
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