Relationships Between Soil Nitrogen Dynamics and Natural 15N Abundance in Plant Foliage from Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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Canadian Journal of Forest Research






National Research Council Canada

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site nitrogen dynamics, natural 15N abundance, plant foliage, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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We tested the hypothesis that naturally occurring nitrogen (N) isotope ratios in foliage (from plants that do not symbiotically fix atmospheric N2) are an indicator of soil N dynamics in forests. Replicate plots were established at eight locations ranging in elevation from 615 to 1670 m in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in eastern Tennessee, U.S.A. The locations selected ranged from N-poor (low-elevation) to N-rich (high-elevation) forest stands. Soils were sampled in June 1992; plants, forest floors, and upper mineral soils were sampled in August 1992. Net N mineralization and net nitrification potentials for surface mineral soils and organic matter layers at each site were determined by aerobic laboratory incubations. Soils and organic layers from high-elevation sites had greater net N mineralization and nitrification potentials than soils from low-elevation sites. There were significant (P ≤ 0.05) differences between study sites in soil 15N abundance. Therefore, we examined correlations between measures of soil N availability and both mean foliar δ15N values and mean enrichment factors (εp−s = δ15Nleaf − δ15Nsoil). In evergreens, maples, and ferns, mean foliar δ15N values and mean enrichment factors were positively correlated with net N mineralization and net nitrification potentials in soil. The observed relationships between natural 15N abundance in plant leaves and soil N availability were explained by a simple model of soil N dynamics. The model predicts how the isotopic composition of plant N is affected by the following factors: (i) varying uptake of soil NH4-N and NO3-N, (ii) the isotopic composition of different soil N pools, and (iii) relative rates of soil N transformations.


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