Quantifying Ecosystem Controls and Their Contextual Interactionson Nutrient Export From Developing Forest Mesocosms

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The complexity of natural ecosystems makes it difficult to compare the relative importance of abiotic and biotic factors and to assess the effects of their interactions on ecosystem development. To improve our understanding of ecosystem complexity, we initiated an experiment designed to quantify the main effects and interactions of several factors that are thought to affect nutrient export from developing forest ecosystems. Using a replicated 2 × 2 × 4 factorial experiment, we quantified the main effects of these factors and the factor interactions on annual calcium, magnesium, and potassium export from field mesocosms over 4 years for two Vermont locations, two soils, and four different tree seedling communities. We found that the main effects explained 56%–97% of total variation in nutrient export. Abiotic factors (location and soil) accounted for a greater percentage of the total variation in nutrient export (47%–94%) than the biotic factor (plant community) (2%–15%). However, biotic control over nutrient export was significant, even when biomass was minimal. Factor interactions were often significant, but they explained less of the variation in nutrient export (1%–33%) than the main effects. Year-to-year fluctuations influenced the relative importance of the main effects in determining nutrient export and created factor interactions between most of the explanatory variables. Our study suggests that when research is focused on typically used main effects, such as location and soil, and interactions are aggregated into overall error terms, important information about the factors controlling ecosystem processes can be lost.