Forest calcium depletion and biotic retention along a soil nitrogen gradient

Ecological Applications
By: , and 



High nitrogen (N) accumulation in terrestrial ecosystems can shift patterns of nutrient limitation and deficiency beyond N toward other nutrients, most notably phosphorus (P) and base cations (calcium [Ca], magnesium [Mg], and potassium [K]). We examined how naturally high N accumulation from a legacy of symbiotic N fixation shaped P and base cation cycling across a gradient of nine temperate conifer forests in the Oregon Coast Range. We were particularly interested in whether long-term legacies of symbiotic N fixation promoted coupled N and organic P accumulation in soils, and whether biotic demands by non-fixing vegetation could conserve ecosystem base cations as N accumulated. Total soil N (0–100 cm) pools increased nearly threefold across the N gradient, leading to increased nitrate leaching, declines in soil pH from 5.8 to 4.2, 10-fold declines in soil exchangeable Ca, Mg, and K, and increased mobilization of aluminum. These results suggest that long-term N enrichment had acidified soils and depleted much of the readily weatherable base cation pool. Soil organic P increased with both soil N and C across the gradient, but soil inorganic P, biomass P, and P leaching loss did not vary with N, implying that historic symbiotic N fixation promoted soil organic P accumulation and P sufficiency for non-fixers. Even though soil pools of Ca, Mg, and K all declined as soil N increased, only Ca declined in biomass pools, suggesting the emergence of Ca deficiency at high N. Biotic conservation and tight recycling of Ca increased in response to whole-ecosystem Ca depletion, as indicated by preferential accumulation of Ca in biomass and surface soil. Our findings support a hierarchical model of coupled N–Ca cycling under long-term soil N enrichment, whereby ecosystem-level N saturation and nitrate leaching deplete readily available soil Ca, stimulating biotic Ca conservation as overall supply diminishes. We conclude that a legacy of biological N fixation can increase N and P accumulation in soil organic matter to the point that neither nutrient is limiting to subsequent non-fixers, while also resulting in natural N saturation that intensifies base cation depletion and deficiency.

Study Area

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Forest calcium depletion and biotic retention along a soil nitrogen gradient
Series title Ecological Applications
DOI 10.1890/12-2204.1
Volume 23
Issue 8
Year Published 2013
Language English
Publisher Ecological Society of America
Contributing office(s) Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center
Description 15 p.
Larger Work Type Article
Larger Work Subtype Journal Article
Larger Work Title Ecological Applications
First page 1947
Last page 1961
Country United States
State Oregon
Other Geospatial Oregon Coast Range
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