Spatial variability of soil properties in the shortgrass steppe: The relative importance of topography, grazing, microsite, and plant species in controlling spatial patterns

Publication Type:

Journal Article


ECOSYSTEMS, SPRINGER VERLAG, Volume 2, Number 5, 175 FIFTH AVE, NEW YORK, NY 10010 USA, p.422-438 (1999)


grazing, microsite, shortgrass steppe, soil organic matter, spatial variability, topography


We conducted a study to evaluate the relative importance of topography, grazing, the location of individual plants (microsite), and plant species in controlling the spatial variability of soil organic matter in shortgrass steppe ecosystems. We found that the largest spatial variation occurs in concert with topography and with microsite-scale heterogeneity, with relatively little spatial variability due to grazing or to plant species. Total soil C and N, coarse and fine particulate organic matter C and N, and potentially mineralizable C were significantly affected by topography, with higher levels in toe-slope positions than in midslopes or summits. Soils beneath individual plants (Bouteloua gracilis and Opuntia polyacantha) were elevated by 2-3 cm relative to surrounding soils. All pools of soil organic matter were significantly higher in the raised hummocks directly beneath plants than in the soil surface of interspaces or this layer under plants. High levels of mineral material in the hummocks suggest that erosion is an important process in their formation, perhaps in addition to biotic accumulation of litter beneath individual plants. Over 50 y of heavy grazing by cattle did not have a significant effect on most of the soil organic matter pools we studied. This result was consistent with our hypothesis that this system, with its strong dominance of belowground organic matter, is minimally influenced by aboveground herbivory. In addition, soils beneath two of the important plant species of the shortgrass steppe, B. gracilis and O. polyacantha, differed little from one another. The processes that create spatial variability in shortgrass steppe ecosystems do not affect all soil organic matter pools equally. Topographic variability, developing over pedogenic time scales (centuries to thousands of years), has the largest effect on the most stable pools of soil organic matter. The influence of microsite is most evident in the pools of organic matter that turn over at time scales that approximate the life span of individual plants (years to decades and centuries).