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Interferences between Sphagnum and vascular plants: effects on plant community structure and peat formation


  • Nils Malmer,

  • Crister Albinsson,

  • Brita M. Svensson,

  • Bo Wallén

N. Malmer, C. Albinsson, B. M. Svensson and B. Wallén, Dept of Ecology, Lund Univ., SE-223 62 Lund, Sweden ( Present address for CA: Kalmar Univ., Box 905, SE-391 29 Kalmar, Sweden. Present address for BMS: Evolutionary Biology Centre, Dept of Plant Ecology, Uppsala Univ., Villavägen 14, SE-752 36 Uppsala, Sweden. Present address for BW: Faculty of Science, Lund Univ., Box 118, SE-221 00 Lund, Sweden.


The interference between vascular plants and peat mosses with respect to nitrogen and phosphorus was studied in a fertilization experiment and with respect to competition for light in a removal experiment in poor fens with either soligenous or topogenous hydrology using Nartheciumossifragum (L.) Huds. and three species of Sphagnum sect. Sphagnum as targets. Adding fertilizer either on the moss surface or below it confirmed the hypotheses of an asymmetric competition for nutrients, viz. that the Sphagnum mosses relied on the atmospheric supply while Narthecium depended on mineralization in the peat. The results of the removal experiments and the negatively correlated growth of Narthecium and Sphagnum mosses demonstrated a symmetric competition for light. The intensity of the competition for light increased as the availability of N and P increased. The nutrient resources in the total biomass decreased with decreasing standing crop of Narthecium. Only with a considerable amount of mineral nutrients in the biomass has Narthecium the capacity to grow ahead of Sphagnum, because the asymmetric competition for N and P gives Sphagnum the capacity to reduce the performance of vascular plants. The mosses are more efficient in their use of nutrients and produce a decay-resistant litter inducing low mineralization and increasing the peat accumulation rate, and that withdraws N and P from the rhizosphere. The Sphagnum mosses thus act as ecological engineers structuring the plant community and determining the carbon balance of the system. The development of ombrotrophic conditions through peat accumulation seems less probable on soligenous than on topogenous mires owing to the higher mineralization rate there supporting the growth of the vascular plants. Correspondingly, disturbances of the Sphagnum cover, such as through airborne pollutants, increase the productivity of the vascular plants and decrease the capacity for carbon accumulation.