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Soil phosphorus constrains biodiversity across European grasslands

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Abstract

Nutrient pollution presents a serious threat to biodiversity conservation. In terrestrial ecosystems, the deleterious effects of nitrogen pollution are increasingly understood and several mitigating environmental policies have been developed. Compared to nitrogen, the effects of increased phosphorus have received far less attention, although some studies have indicated that phosphorus pollution may be detrimental for biodiversity as well. On the basis of a dataset covering 501 grassland plots throughout Europe, we demonstrate that, independent of the level of atmospheric nitrogen deposition and soil acidity, plant species richness was consistently negatively related to soil phosphorus. We also identified thresholds in soil phosphorus above which biodiversity appears to remain at a constant low level. Our results indicate that nutrient management policies biased toward reducing nitrogen pollution will fail to preserve biodiversity. As soil phosphorus is known to be extremely persistent and we found no evidence for a critical threshold below which no environmental harm is expected, we suggest that agro-environmental schemes should include grasslands that are permanently free from phosphorus fertilization.

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