The rapid conversion of grasslands into shrublands has been observed in many arid and semiarid regions worldwide. Studies have shown that fire can provide certain forms of reversibility for shrub-grass transition due to resource homogenization and shrub mortality, especially in the early stages of shrub encroachment. Field-level post-fire soil resource redistribution has rarely been tested. Here we used prescribed fire in a shrubland-grassland transition zone in the northern Chihuahuan Desert to test the hypothesis that fire facilitates the remobilization of nutrient-enriched soil from shrub microsites to grass and bare microsites and thereby reduces the spatial heterogeneity of soil resources. Results show that the shrub microsites had the lowest water content compared to grass and bare microsites after fire, even when rain events occurred. Significant differences of total soil carbon (TC) and total soil nitrogen (TN) among the three microsites disappeared one year after the fire. The spatial autocorrelation distance increased from 1~2 m, approximately the mean size of an individual shrub canopy, to over 5 m one year after the fire for TC and TN. Patches of high soil C and N decomposed one year after the prescribed fire. Overall, fire stimulates the transfer of soil C and N from shrub microsites to nutrient-depleted grass and bare microsites. Such a redistribution of soil C and N, coupled with the reduced soil water content under the shrub canopies, suggests that fire might influence the competition between shrubs and grasses, leading to a higher grass, compared to shrub, coverage in this ecotone.
Additional publication details
Post-fire redistribution of soil carbon and nitrogen at a grassland-shrubland ecotone