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The effects of increased snow depth on plant and microbial biomass and community composition along a precipitation gradient in temperate steppes


Shift in precipitation regime could greatly alter plant and microbial activity, and thus the contemporary and future ecosystem dynamics in grasslands. We investigated how changes in snow depth affect plants, microbes and their relationships after 10 consecutive years of snow treatments in different steppes. We selected 8 snow fences along a mean annual precipitation (MAP) gradient from 225 to 375 mm in Inner Mongolia. For each snow fence, study plots were set up at 7 transects with different levels of snow depth. We found that ecosystem properties, including soil moisture, the biomass and nitrogen (N) pools of microbes and plants, the fungi: bacteria ratio and the grass: forb ratio, increased with increasing snow depth at the drier sites with lower MAP, but not at the wetter sites with higher MAP. At any given site, the sensitivity of these ecosystem properties to changes in snow depth was determined by the slopes of these variables against snow depth. The results showed that the sensitivity of these ecosystem properties to changes in snow depth decreased linearly with increase in MAP levels. In addition, we also found that increased snow depth shifted the relationship between microbial and plant biomass from positive to negative. Our work reveals the importance of snow water in regulating plant and microbial processes in temperate steppes, especially under lower MAP conditions. The greater plant and microbial biomass and the shift of community toward greater fungi: bacteria and grass: forb ratio imply that increased snowmelt input alleviated water limitation in temperate steppes and altered plant and microbial communities. Our study helps to better predict that how changes in winter precipitation could affect the biomass and composition of plants and soil microbes in grasslands.

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