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Seasonal variations in plant nitrogen relations and photosynthesis along a grassland to shrubland gradient in Owens Valley, California


Community composition in semi-arid ecosystems has largely been explained by water availability; however, nitrogen is a common limiting nutrient, and may be an important control on plant function and carbon uptake. We investigated nitrogen relations and photosynthesis of several dominant species at shallow groundwater sites in Owens Valley, California. We measured soil nitrogen (N) availability, leaf N and isotopes, water isotopes, and gas exchange of dominant shrub species Atriplex torreyi and Ericameria nauseosa and grass species Distichlis spicata throughout the summer season in three sites that had similar watertable depths, but that varied in community composition and N availability. Surface soil inorganic N was greatest at the grassland site and declined from June to September at all sites. Leaf N declined throughout the season in all species, and was correlated with soil inorganic N. Photosynthesis of A. torreyi remained relatively constant throughout the season. In contrast, D. spicata and E. nauseosa experienced seasonal declines in photosynthesis at sites with greater inorganic N availability. Leaf N was significantly correlated with photosynthesis in D. spicata across all sites and measurement periods. Controls on N cycling are likely to be an important determinant of photosynthesis of D. spicata in this region.

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