Effects of increased soil nitrogen on the dominance of alien annual plants in the Mojave Desert.

Published online
21 May 2003
Content type
Journal article
Journal title
Journal of Applied Ecology

Brooks, M. L.
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Deserts are one of the least invaded ecosystems by plants, possibly due to naturally low levels of soil nitrogen. Increased levels of soil nitrogen caused by atmospheric nitrogen deposition may increase the dominance of invasive alien plants and decrease the diversity of plant communities in desert regions, as it has in other ecosystems. Deserts should be particularly susceptible to even small increases in soil nitrogen levels because the ratio of increased nitrogen to plant biomass is higher compared with most other ecosystems. The hypothesis that increased soil nitrogen will lead to increased dominance by alien plants and decreased plant species diversity was tested in field experiments using nitrogen additions at three sites in the Mojave Desert of western North America. Responses of alien and native annual plants to soil nitrogen additions were measured in terms of density, biomass and species richness. Effects of nitrogen additions were evaluated during 2 years of contrasting rainfall and annual plant productivity. The rate of nitrogen addition was similar to published rates of atmospheric nitrogen deposition in urban areas adjacent to the Mojave Desert (3.2 g N m-2 year-1). The dominant alien species included the grasses Bromus madritensis ssp. rubens and Schismus spp. (S. arabicus and S. barbatus) and the forb Erodium cicutarium. Soil nitrogen addition increased the density and biomass of alien annual plants during both years, but decreased density, biomass and species richness of native species only during the year of highest annual plant productivity. The negative response of natives may have been due to increased competitive stress for soil water and other nutrients caused by the increased productivity of aliens. The effects of nitrogen additions were significant at both ends of a natural nutrient gradient, beneath creosote bush Larrea tridentata canopies and in the interspaces between them, although responses varied among individual alien species. The positive effects of nitrogen addition were highest in the beneath-canopy for B. rubens and in interspaces for Schismus spp. and E. cicutarium. The results indicated that increased levels of soil nitrogen from atmospheric nitrogen deposition or from other sources could increase the dominance of alien annual plants and possibly promote the invasion of new species in desert regions. Increased dominance by alien annuals may decrease the diversity of native annual plants, and increased biomass of alien annual grasses may also increase the frequency of fire. Although nitrogen deposition cannot be controlled by local land managers, the managers need to understand its potential effects on plant communities and ecosystem properties, in particular how these effects may interact with land-use activities that can be managed at the local scale. These interactions are currently unknown, and hinder the ability of managers to make appropriate land-use decisions related to nitrogen deposition in desert ecosystems. Synthesis and applications. The effects of nitrogen deposition on invasive alien plants should be considered when deciding where to locate new conservation areas, and in evaluating the full scope of ecological effects of new projects that would increase nitrogen deposition rates.

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