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Plant litter effects on soil nutrient availability and vegetation dynamics: changes that occur when annual grasses invade shrub-steppe communities

Bansal, Sheel, Sheley, Roger L., Blank, Bob, Vasquez, Edward A.
Plant ecology 2014 v.215 no.3 pp. 367-378
biogeochemical cycles, biomass, botanical composition, correlation, environmental impact, grasses, introduced species, nutrient availability, plant communities, plant litter, temporal variation, vegetation, weather, United States
Changes in the quantity and quality of plant litter occur in many ecosystems as they are invaded by exotic species, which impact soil nutrient cycling and plant community composition. Such changes in sagebrush-steppe communities are occurring with invasion of annual grasses (AG) into a perennial grass (PG) dominated system. We conducted a 5-year litter manipulation study located in the northern Great Basin, USA. Springtime litter was partially or completely removed in three communities with differing levels of invasion (invaded, mixed, and native) to determine how litter removal and litter biomass affected plant-available soil N and plant community composition. Litter biomass (prior to the removal treatment) was negatively correlated with plant-available N in the invaded community, but was positively correlated in the native community. Plant-available N had greater intra- and inter-annual fluctuations in the invaded compared to the mixed or native communities, but was not generally affected by removal treatments. Litter removal had negative effects on AG cover during a warm/dry year and negative effects on PG cover during a cool/wet year in the mixed community. Overall, the effectiveness of springtime litter manipulations on plant-available N were limited and weather dependent, and only removal treatments >75 % had effects on the plant community. Our study demonstrates how communities invaded by AGs have significantly increased temporal variability in nutrient cycling, which may decrease ecosystem stability. Further, we found that the ecological impacts from litter manipulation on sagebrush communities were dependent on the extent of AG invasion, the timing of removal, and seasonal precipitation.