Temporal Dynamics of Soil Carbon and Nitrogen Resources at the Five-Points Grassland-Creosote Ecotone

Plant communities across large portions of the southwestern United States have shifted from grassland to desert shrubland. Studies have demonstrated that soil nutrient resources become spatially more heterogeneous and are redistributed into islands of fertility with this shift in vegetation. This research addressed the additional question of whether soil resources become more temporally heterogeneous along a grassland-shrubland ecotome.

Within adjacent grassland and creosotebush sites, soil profiles were described at 3 pits and samples collected for description of nutrient resources within the profile. Relative cover of plant species and bare soil were determined within each site by line transects. The top 20-cm of bare soil or soil beneath the canopy of grasses/creosotebush were collected 17 times during 1992-1994. Soil samples were analyzed for soil moisture, extractable ammonium and nitrate, nitrogen mineralization potential, microbial biomass carbon, total organic carbon, microbial respiration, dehydrogenase activity, ratio of microbial C to total C (C[mic]-to-C[org]), and microbial respiration to biomass carbon (metabolic quotient).

The major differences in the structure of soils between sites were the apparent loss of a 3 to 5-cm depth of sandy surface soil at the creosotebush site and an associated increase in calcium carbonate content at a more shallow depth. Soils under plants at both sites had greater total and available nutrient resources with higher concentrations under creosotebush than under grasses. Greatest temporal variation in available soil resources was shown in soils under creosotebush. When expressed on an area basis, greater temporal variation in the total amount of available soil resources was shown in the grassland site, primarily due to greater plant cover (45% in grassland vs. 8% in creosote).