Interactive effects of vegetation type and elevation on aboveground and belowground properties in a subarctic tundra

Authors


M. K. Sundqvist, Dept of Forest Ecology and Management, Swedish Univ. of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), SE–901 83 Umeå, Sweden. E-mail: maja.sundqvist@seksko.slu.se

Abstract

An improved knowledge of how contrasting types of plant communities and their associated soil biota differ in their responses to climatic variables is important for better understanding the future impacts of climate change on terrestrial ecosystems. Elevational gradients serve as powerful study systems for answering questions on how ecological processes can be affected by changes in temperature and associated climatic variables. In this study, we evaluated how plant and soil microbial communities, and abiotic soil properties, change with increasing elevation in subarctic tundra in northern Sweden, for each of two dominant but highly contrasting vegetation types, namely heath (dominated by woody dwarf shrubs) and meadow (dominated by herbaceous species). To achieve this, we measured plant community characteristics, microbial community properties and several soil abiotic properties for both vegetation types across an elevation gradient of 500 to 1000 m. We found that the two vegetation types differed not only in several above- and belowground properties, but also in how these properties responded to elevation, pointing to important interactive effects between vegetation type and elevation. Specifically, for the heath, available soil nitrogen and phosphorus decreased with elevation whereas fungal dominance increased, while for the meadow, idiosyncratic responses to elevation for these variables were found. These differences in belowground responses to elevation among vegetation types were linked to shifts in the species and functional group composition of the vegetation. Our results highlight that these two dominant vegetation types in subarctic tundra differ greatly not only in fundamental aboveground and belowground properties, but also in how these properties respond to elevation and are therefore likely to be influenced by temperature. As such they highlight that vegetation type, and the soil abiotic properties that determine this, may serve as powerful determinants of how both aboveground and belowground properties respond to strong environmental gradients.

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