Plant trait diversity buffers variability in denitrification potential over changes in season and soil conditions.
BACKGROUND: Denitrification is an important ecosystem service that removes nitrogen (N) from N-polluted watersheds, buffering soil, stream, and river water quality from excess N by returning N to the atmosphere before it reaches lakes or oceans and leads to eutrophication. The denitrification enzyme activity (DEA) assay is widely used for measuring denitrification potential. Because DEA is a function of enzyme levels in soils, most ecologists studying denitrification have assumed that DEA is less sensitive to ambient levels of nitrate (NO(3)(-)) and soil carbon and thus, less variable over time than field measurements. In addition, plant diversity has been shown to have strong effects on microbial communities and belowground processes and could potentially alter the functional capacity of denitrifiers. Here, we examined three questions: (1) Does DEA vary through the growing season? (2) If so, can we predict DEA variability with environmental variables? (3) Does plant functional diversity affect DEA variability? METHODOLOGY/PRINCIPAL FINDINGS: The study site is a restored wetland in North Carolina, US with native wetland herbs planted in monocultures or mixes of four or eight species. We found that denitrification potentials for soils collected in July 2006 were significantly greater than for soils collected in May and late August 2006 (p<0.0001). Similarly, microbial biomass standardized DEA rates were significantly greater in July than May and August (p<0.0001). Of the soil variables measured--soil moisture, organic matter, total inorganic nitrogen, and microbial biomass--none consistently explained the pattern observed in DEA through time. There was no significant relationship between DEA and plant species richness or functional diversity. However, the seasonal variance in microbial biomass standardized DEA rates was significantly inversely related to plant species functional diversity (p<0.01). CONCLUSIONS/SIGNIFICANCE: These findings suggest that higher plant functional diversity may support a more constant level of DEA through time, buffering the ecosystem from changes in season and soil conditions.
McGill, BM; Sutton-Grier, AE; Wright, JP
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