Two of the most pervasive human impacts on ecosystems are alteration of global nutrient budgets and changes in the abundance and identity of consumers. Fossil fuel combustion and agricultural fertilization have doubled and quintupled, respectively, global pools of nitrogen and phosphorus relative to pre-industrial levels. In spite of the global impacts of these human activities, there have been no globally coordinated experiments to quantify the general impacts on ecological systems. This experiment seeks to determine how nutrient availability controls plant biomass, diversity, and species composition in a desert grassland. This has important implications for understanding how future atmospheric deposition of nutrients (N, S, Ca, K) might affect community and ecosystem-level responses. This study is part of a larger coordinated research network that includes more than 40 grassland sites around the world. By using a standardized experimental setup that is consistent across all study sites, we are addressing the questions of whether diversity and productivity are co-limited by multiple nutrients and if so, whether these trends are predictable on a global scale.
Nutrient addition treatments and sampling sites are located in an area of desert grassland dominated by black grama, Bouteloua eriopoda. The experimental design is completely randomized with 8 treatments replicated 5 times each. The nutrients added include N (nitrogen), P (phosphorus), and K (potassium plus other nutrients). Treatments are: +N+P+K, +N+P, +N+K, +N, +P+K, +P, +K, and control (no nutrients added). Treatments were randomly assigned to 40-25 m2 plots with 1m separating each plot. Response variables measured include: plant community composition; percent ground cover of live perennial grasses, herbaceous dicots, shrubs, cactus, litter, and bare ground; aboveground net primary production; light availability, and several soil parameters (moisture, organic matter content, pH, P, field available nitrogen (NO3-N and NH4-N), potentially mineralizable N).
This experiment was initiated in May 2007 with one year of pre-treatment data and 3 years of post-treatment data collected thus far. Nutrients are applied annually at the beginning of the growing season starting in 2008. Plant community composition, percent cover of individual plant species, and aboveground net primary production will continue to be monitored semiannually (spring and fall) in a permanently marked 1m2 subplot in each plot. Soil will be collected each year and will be shipped to collaborators for analyses.
Net Primary Productivity (NPP) Measurements
Collecting the Data:
Net primary production data is collected twice each year, spring and fall. Spring measurements are taken in April or May when shrubs and spring annuals have reached peak biomass. Fall measurements are taken in either September or October when summer annuals have reached peak biomass but prior to killing frosts. Winter measurements are taken in February before the onset of spring growth.
Vegetation data is collected on a palm top computer. A 1-m2 PVC-frame is placed over the fiberglass stakes that mark the diagonal corners of each quadrat. When measuring cover it is important to stay centered over the vegetation in the quadrat to prevent errors caused by angle of view (parallax). Each PVC-frame is divided into 100 squares with nylon string. The dimensions of each square are 10cm x 10cm and represent 1 percent of the total area.
The cover (area) and height of each individual live (green) vegetative unit that falls within the one square meter quadrat is measured. A vegetative unit consists of an individual size class (as defined by a unique cover and height) of a particular species within a quadrat. Cover is quantified by counting the number of 10cm x 10cm squares filled by each vegetative unit.
Niners and plexidecs are additional tools that help accurately determine the cover a vegetative unit. A niner is a small, hand-held PVC frame that can be used to measure canopies. Like the larger PVC frame it is divided into 10cm x 10cm squares, each square representing 1% of the total cover. However, there are only nine squares within the frame, hence the name “niner.” A plexidec can help determine the cover of vegetative units with covers less than 1%. Plexidecs are clear plastic squares that are held above vegetation. Each plexidec represents a cover of 0.5% and has smaller dimensions etched onto the surface that correspond to 0.01%, 0.05%, 0.1%, and 0.25% cover.
It is extremely important that cover and height measurements remain consistent over time to ensure that regressions based on this data remain valid. Field crew members should calibrate with each other to ensure that observer bias does not influence data collection.
In 2013, percent cover of litter and bare soil were added for each quadrat.
Grasses-To determine the cover of a grass clump, envision a perimeter around the central mass or densest portion of the plant, excluding individual long leaves, wispy ends, or more open upper regions of the plant. Live foliage is frequently mixed with dead foliage in grass clumps and this must be kept in mind during measurement as our goal is to measure only plant biomass for the current season. In general, recently dead foliage is yellow and dead foliage is gray. Within reason, try to include only yellow or green portions of the plant in cover measurement while excluding portions of the plant that are gray. This is particularly important for measurements made in the winter when there is little or no green foliage present. In winter, sometimes measurements will be based mainly on yellow foliage. Stoloniferous stems of grasses that are not rooted should be ignored. If a stem is rooted it should be recorded as a separate observation from the parent plant.
Forbs-The cover of forbs is measured as the perimeter of the densest portion of the plant. If the forb is an annual it is acceptable to include the inflorescence in this measurement. If the forb is a perennial, do not include the inflorescence as part of the cover measurement. Measure all foliage that was produced during the current season, including any recently dead (yellow) foliage. Avoid measuring gray foliage that died in a previous season.
Cacti-For cacti that consist of a series of pads or jointed stems (Opuntia phaecantha, Opuntia imbricata) measure the average length and width of each pad instead of cover and height. Cacti that occur as a dense ball/clump of stems (Opuntia leptocaulis) are measured using the same protocol as shrubs. Pincushion or hedgehog cacti (Escobaria vivipara, Schlerocactus intertextus, Echinocereus fendleri) that occur as single (or clustered) cylindrical stems are measured as a single cover.
Yuccas-Make separate observations for the leaves and caudex (thick basal stem). Break the observations into sections of leaves that are approximately the same height and record the cover as the perimeter around this group of leaf blades. The caudex is measured as a single cover. The thick leaves of yuccas make it difficult to make a cover measurement by centering yourself over the caudex of the plant. The cover of the caudex may be estimated by holding a niner next to it or using a tape measure to measure to approximate the area.
Height is recorded as a whole number in centimeters. All heights are vertical heights but they are not necessarily perpendicular to the ground if the ground is sloping.
Annual grasses and all forbs-Measure the height from the base of the plant to the top of the inflorescence (if present). Otherwise, measure to the top of the green foliage.
Perennial grasses-Measure the height from the base of the plant to the top of the live green foliage. Do not include the inflorescence in the height measurement. The presence of live green foliage may be difficult to see in the winter. Check carefully at the base of the plant for the presence of green foliage. If none is found it may be necessary to pull the leaf sheaths off of several plants outside the quadrat. From this you may be able to make some observations about where green foliage is likely to occur.
Perennial shrub and sub-shrubs-Measure the height from the base of the green foliage to the top of the green foliage, ignoring all bare stems. Do not measure to the ground unless the foliage reaches the ground.
Plants rooted outside but hanging into a quadrat-Do not measure the height from the ground. Measure only the height of the portion of the plant that is within the quadrat.
Recording the Data:
Excel spreadsheets are used for data entry and file names should begin with the overall study (npp), followed by the date (mm.dd.yy) and the initials of the recorder (.abc). Finally, the site abbreviation should be added (i.e., c, g, b, p). The final format should be as follows: npp.mm.dd.yy.abcg.xls. File names should be in lowercase.
All data were QA/QC'd by use of filters in Excel and imported into MySQL.
Additional Information on the Data Collection Period
Species composition and net primary production was sampled semiannually (spring and fall) in 2007, 2008, and 2009. Soil was sampled and analyzed in the fall in 2007 and 2008. Plots were fertilized annually starting in 2008.
In August 2009, a wildfire burned all 40 of the NutNet plots causing no Fall 2009 vegetation measurements.
Special Codes for Vegetation Ids:
SPORSP- Unknown Sporobolus
SPSP- Unknown Sphaeralcea
UNKFO- Unknown Forb
On 08/20/2015, the following taxonomic changes were made to the data: ARPUP6 was changed to ARPU9, OECAC2 was changed to OECA10, SPWR was changed to SPPO6
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