Ecosystem consequences of plant life form changes at three sites in the semiarid United States

Publication Type:

Journal Article


OECOLOGIA, SPRINGER VERLAG, Volume 121, Number 4, 175 FIFTH AVE, NEW YORK, NY 10010 USA, p.551-563 (1999)


plant invasion, plant life form, root distribution, soil carbon chemistry, soil depth


Many semiarid rangelands have recently experienced changes in dominant plant life form. Both woody plant expansion into grasslands and the invasion of annual grasses into shrublands have potential influence on regional carbon cycling. Soil carbon content, chemistry, and distribution may change following shifts in dominant plant life form because plant life forms differ in litter chemistry and patterns of detrital input. This study assesses the amount, quality, and distribution of soil C below woody vegetation and grasses at three rangelands in Texas, New Mexico, and Utah. At each of these sites there has been a well-documented shift in dominant plant life form. In Texas and New Mexico, woody plants have increased in grasslands, while grasses have invaded into former shrublands in Utah. We measured total soil carbon, particulate organic matter (POM) C, and the carbon isotopic composition of soil carbon beneath woody plants and grasses at each of these three sites. At the La Copita Research Area in south-central Texas there was significantly more soil C found beneath Prosopis glandulosa, the dominant woody plant, than was found beneath grasses. Mean soil C content to 1 m was 7.2 kg C m(-2) beneath P. glandulosa and 6.0 kg C m-2 beneath grasses. There was also significantly more POM C beneath P. glandulosa than beneath grasses. Stable carbon isotopic composition indicated that the expansion of P, glandulosa in savannas in Texas first influences carbon cycling in surface soils, then deep soil C, and finally throughout the soil profile. At the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge in central New Mexico, we found that there was significantly more soil C in the upper 10 cm of the soil profile beneath Larrea tridentata than was found beneath Bouteloua spp. Stable carbon isotopic composition indicated that the expansion of L. tridentata influenced C cycling throughout the soil profile. At Curlew Valley in northern Utah, we found no significant differences in total profile soil C beneath different plant life forms. However, there was significantly more soil C found at the soil surface beneath woody plants than was observed beneath annual grasses. There was significantly less POM C beneath annual grasses than was found beneath woody plants or perennial grasses. Based on stable carbon isotopic analyses, we concluded that the invasion of grasses into shrublands influenced only the upper 30 cm of the soil profile. We determined that following changes in plant life form dominance, the most consistent change in soil C was an alteration in content and distribution of POM C, a slowly cycling pool of soil C. While we failed to find a consistent change in total profile soil C with plant life form across our sites, the change in soil C chemistry may have important implications for long-term soil C storage in semiarid systems where there have been shifts in plant life form.