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Different inter‐annual responses to availability and form of nitrogen explain species coexistence in an alpine meadow community after release from grazing

Song, Ming‐Hua, Yu, Fei‐Hai, Ouyang, Hua, Cao, Guang‐Min, Xu, Xing‐Liang, Cornelissen, Johannes H.C.
Global change biology 2012 v.18 no.10 pp. 3100-3111
Cyperaceae, aboveground biomass, alpine meadows, ammonium nitrate, community structure, ecophysiology, ecosystems, experimental design, forbs, grasses, grazing, land use, legumes, livestock, nitrogen, plant response, soil heating, species diversity, temporal variation, China
Plant species and functional groups in nitrogen (N) limited communities may coexist through strong eco‐physiological niche differentiation, leading to idiosyncratic responses to multiple nutrition and disturbance regimes. Very little is known about how such responses depend on the availability of N in different chemical forms. Here we hypothesize that idiosyncratic year‐to‐year responses of plant functional groups to availability and form of nitrogen explain species coexistence in an alpine meadow community after release from grazing. We conducted a 6 year N addition experiment in an alpine meadow on the Tibetan Plateau released from grazing by livestock. The experimental design featured three N forms (ammonium, nitrate, and ammonium nitrate), crossed with three levels of N supply rates (0.375, 1.500 and 7.500 g N m⁻² yr⁻¹), with unfertilized treatments without and with light grazing as controls. All treatments showed increasing productivity and decreasing species richness after cessation of grazing and these responses were stronger at higher N rates. Although N forms did not affect aboveground biomass at community level, different functional groups did show different responses to N chemical form and supply rate and these responses varied from year to year. In support of our hypothesis, these idiosyncratic responses seemed to enable a substantial diversity and biomass of sedges, forbs, and legumes to still coexist with the increasingly productive grasses in the absence of grazing, at least at low and intermediate N availability regimes. This study provides direct field‐based evidence in support of the hypothesis that idiosyncratic and annually varying responses to both N quantity and quality may be a key driver of community structure and species coexistence. This finding has important implications for the diversity and functioning of other ecosystems with spatial and temporal variation in available N quantity and quality as related to changing atmospheric N deposition, land‐use, and climate‐induced soil warming.