Soil nitrogen response to shrub encroachment in a degrading semi-arid grassland
Transitions from grass- to shrub-dominated states in drylands by woody plant encroachment represent significant forms of land cover change with the potential to alter the spatial distribution and cycling of soil resources. Yet an understanding of how this phenomenon impacts the soil nitrogen pool, which is essential to primary production in arid and semi-arid systems, is poorly resolved. In this study, we quantified how the distribution and speciation of soil nitrogen, as well as rates of free-living biological nitrogen fixation, changed along a gradient of increasing mesquite (Prosopis velutina Woot.) cover in a semi-arid grassland of the southwestern US. Our results show that site-level concentrations of total nitrogen remain unchanged with increasing shrub cover as losses from inter-shrub areas (sum of grass and bare-soil cover) are proportional to increases in soils under shrub canopies. However, despite the similar carbon-to-nitrogen ratio and microbial biomass of soil from inter-shrub and shrub areas at each site, site-level concentrations of inorganic nitrogen increase with shrub cover due to the accumulation of ammonium and nitrate in soils beneath shrub canopies. Using the acetylene reduction assay technique, we found increasing ratios of inorganic nitrogen to bioavailable phosphorus inhibit rates of biological nitrogen fixation by free-living soil bacteria. Overall, these results provide a greater insight into how grassland-to-shrubland transitions influence the soil N pool through associated impacts on the soil microbial biomass.