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Non‐random species loss in a forest herbaceous layer following nitrogen addition

Walter, Christopher A., Adams, Mary Beth, Gilliam, Frank S., Peterjohn, William T.
Ecology 2017 v.98 no.9 pp. 2322-2332
acidification, algorithms, fertilizer application, forest stands, ground vegetation, hardwood forests, herbaceous plants, nitrogen, nitrogen fertilizers, prediction, species diversity, surveys, Appalachian region, United States
Nitrogen (N) additions have decreased species richness (S) in hardwood forest herbaceous layers, yet the functional mechanisms for these decreases have not been explicitly evaluated. We tested two hypothesized mechanisms, random species loss (RSL) and non‐random species loss (NRSL), in the hardwood forest herbaceous layer of a long‐term, plot‐scale, fertilization experiment in the central Appalachian Mountains, USA. Using a random thinning algorithm, we simulated changes in species densities under RSL and compared the simulated densities to the observed densities among N‐fertilized (+N), N‐fertilized and limed (+N+L), and reference (REF) plots in regenerating forest stands. We found a lower S in the +N treatment across all survey years and determined that the reduction in S was a function of NRSL. Furthermore, non‐random effects were observed in certain species, as they occurred at densities that were either higher or lower than expected due to RSL. Differential advantages were also observed among species between +N and +N+L treatments, suggesting that species responded to either the fertilization or acidification effects of N, though no consistent pattern emerged. Species nitrophily status was not a useful trait for predicting specific species losses, but was a significant factor when averaged across all treatments and sampling years. Our results provide strong evidence that declines in S in the forest herbaceous layer under N fertilization are due largely to NRSL and not simply a function of species rarity.