Grass populations control nitrification in savanna soils


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  • 1Nitrification plays a key role in the functioning of many natural ecosystems. It is directly involved in plant nitrogen nutrition and soil N losses through leaching and denitrification. The control of this process by plants is poorly understood, although modifications of nitrification would allow plants to manipulate competition for N and induce changes in ecosystem N balance. In a wet tropical savanna ecosystem (Lamto, Côte d’Ivoire), the soil N cycle is characterized by distinct high- and low-nitrification sites. Previous publications showed that nitrification was positively or negatively correlated with root densities of the dominant grass covering these sites. These contrasting sites were chosen to investigate the extent to which vegetation controls long-term nitrification.
  • 2In situ experimental plots were created where grass individuals originating from high- or low-nitrifying soils were transplanted into both soils. Nitrifying enzyme activity (NEA) was measured up to 24 months after transplanting. Grasses from both sites significantly modified NEA up to rates similar to those at their respective control sites.
  • 3The level of individual plant control (inhibition and stimulation) was correlated with grass biomass. The potential mechanisms of this control is discussed, along with its consequences for ecosystem N cycling (such as N losses), as the denitrifying enzyme activity (DEA) is much higher in the high-nitrification site. Such results suggest that plant species can have important consequences for N cycling at the population level.