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Impact of labile and recalcitrant carbon treatments on available nitrogen and plant communities in a semiarid ecosystem

Burke, I. C., E. E.Bontti, Barrett, J. E. Barrette, P. N. Lowe, W. K. Lauenroth and R. Riggle R.. 2012. Ecological Applications


In a 10-year study, we assessed the influence of five carbon (C) treatments on the labile C and nitrogen (N) pools of historically N-enriched plots on the Shortgrass Steppe Long Term Ecological Research site located in northeastern Colorado. For eight years, we applied sawdust, sugar, industrial lignin, sawdust sugar, and lignin sugar to plots that had received N and water additions in the early 1970s. Previous work showed that past water and N additions altered plant species composition and enhanced rates of nutrient cycling; these effects were still apparent 25 years later. We hypothesized that labile C amendments would stimulate microbial activity and suppress rates of N mineralization, whereas complex forms of carbon (sawdust and lignin) could enhance humification and lead to longer-term reductions in N availability. Results indicated that, of the five carbon treatments, sugar, sawdust, and sawdust sugar suppressed N availability, with sawdust sugar being the most effective treatment to reduce N availability. The year after treatments stopped, N availability remained less in the sawdust sugar treatment plots than in the high-N control plots. Three years after treatments ended, reductions in N availability were smaller (40%-60%). Our results suggest that highly labile forms of carbon generate strong short-term N sinks, but these effects dissipate within one year of application, and that more recalcitrant forms reduce N longer. Sawdust sugar was the most effective treatment to decrease exotic species canopy cover and increase native species density over the long term. Labile carbon had neither short- nor long-term effects on exotic species. Even though the organic amendments did not contribute to recovery of the dominant native species Bouteloua gracilis, they were effective in increasing another native species, Carex eleocharis. These results indicate that organic amendments may be a useful tool for restoring some native species in the shortgrass steppe, though not all.

Key Words

Bouteloua gracilis;carbon addition;Carex eleocharis;exotic species; historic fertilization; lignin; sawdust; Shortgrass Steppe Long Term Ecological Research site; sugar