The loss of aboveground plant diversity alters belowground ecosystem function; yet, the mechanisms underpinning this relationship and the degree to which plant community structure and climate mediate the effects of plant species loss remain unclear. Here, we explored how plant species loss through experimental removal shaped belowground function in ecosystems characterized by different climatic regimes and edaphic properties. We measured plant community composition as well as potential carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) mineralization and microbial extracellular enzyme activity in soils collected from four unique plant-removal experiments located along an elevational gradient in Colorado, USA. We found that regardless of the identity of the removed species or the climate at each site plant removal decreased the absolute variation in potential N-mineralization rates and marginally reduced the magnitude of N-mineralization rates. While plant species removal also marginally reduced C-mineralization rates, C-mineralization, unlike N-mineralization, displayed sensitivity to the climatic and edaphic differences among sites, where C-mineralization was greatest at the high elevation site that receives the most precipitation annually and contains the largest soil total C pools. Plant removal had little impact on soil enzyme activity. Removal effects were not contingent on the amount of biomass removed annually, and shifts in mineralization rates occurred despite only marginal shifts in plant community structure following plant species removal. Our results present a surprisingly simple and consistent pattern of belowground response to the loss of dominant plant species across an elevational gradient with different climatic and edaphic properties, suggesting a common response of belowground ecosystem function to plant species loss regardless of which plant species are lost or the broader climatic context.
Plant removal across an elevational gradient marginally reduces rates, substantially reduces variation in mineralization
Article published in Global Ecology and Biogeography