Shading Reduces Exploitation of Soil Nitrate and Phosphate by Agropyron desertorum and Artemisia tridentata from Soils with Patchy and Uniform Nutrient Distributions

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Shading may both lessen the demand for soil nutrients and also the energy supply for nutrient acquisition. Since root foraging for nutrients in patchy environments can be energy-costly, especially for an immobile nutrient such as phosphate (P), the effects of shading may be most expected in heterogeneous soils. Plant acquisition of nitrate (N) and phosphate from soils with patchy and uniform nutrient distributions was determined in a field study under open sunlight and with shading for two common perennial Great Basin shrub steppe species, Agropyron desertorum and Artemisia tridentata. Partial shading in a pattern which can occur in shrub steppe vegetation significantly decreased plant N and P acquisition from soils both in the patchy and the uniform nutrient treatments. Artemisia was more affected by the shading than was Agropyron. Exploitation of the rather immobile P ion by both species was reduced to a much greater degree by the shading in the patchy distribution treatment than in the uniform nutrient treatment. As expected, plant acquisition of the more mobile N varied little with nutrient distribution treatment for both species and the depression of N acquisition by shading was the same in both nutrient distributions. The effects of shading appeared to have had its primary influence on different components of root foraging in the two species, especially in the nutrient-rich patches. For Agropyron shading primarily affected root proliferation, as indicated by reduced root density in patches. For Artemisia, shading most influenced root physiological uptake capacity and this was most pronounced in the nutrient-rich patches. While aboveground competition for light may generally reduce nutrient acquisition, the effects appear to be most pronounced if root systems of these steppe species are foraging for nutrients such as P in spatially heterogeneous soils.

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