Nitrogen Deposition Reduces Plant Diversity and Alters Ecosystem Functioning: Field-Scale Evidence from a Nationwide Survey of UK Heathlands

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Abstract

Findings from nitrogen (N) manipulation studies have provided strong evidence of the detrimental impacts of elevated N deposition on the structure and functioning of heathland ecosystems. Few studies, however, have sought to establish whether experimentally observed responses are also apparent under natural, field conditions. This paper presents the findings of a nationwide field-scale evaluation of British heathlands, across broad geographical, climatic and pollution gradients. Fifty two heathlands were selected across an N deposition gradient of 5.9 to 32.4 kg ha-1 yr-1. The diversity and abundance of higher and lower plants and a suite of biogeochemical measures were evaluated in relation to climate and N deposition indices. Plant species richness declined with increasing temperature and N deposition, and the abundance of nitrophilous species increased with increasing N. Relationships were broadly similar between upland and lowland sites, with the biggest reductions in species number associated with increasing N inputs at the low end of the deposition range. Both oxidised and reduced forms of N were associated with species declines, although reduced N appears to be a stronger driver of species loss at the functional group level. Plant and soil biochemical indices were related to temperature, rainfall and N deposition. Litter C:N ratios and enzyme (phenol-oxidase and phosphomonoesterase) activities had the strongest relationships with site N inputs and appear to represent reliable field indicators of N deposition. This study provides strong, field-scale evidence of links between N deposition - in both oxidised and reduced forms - and widespread changes in the composition, diversity and functioning of British heathlands. The similarity of relationships between upland and lowland environments, across broad spatial and climatic gradients, highlights the ubiquity of relationships with N, and suggests that N deposition is contributing to biodiversity loss and changes in ecosystem functioning across European heathlands. © 2013 Southon et al.

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Southon, G. E., Field, C., Caporn, S. J. M., Britton, A. J., & Power, S. A. (2013). Nitrogen Deposition Reduces Plant Diversity and Alters Ecosystem Functioning: Field-Scale Evidence from a Nationwide Survey of UK Heathlands. PLoS ONE, 8(4). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0059031

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