Do soil depth and plant community composition interact to modify the resistance and resilience of grassland ecosystem functioning to drought?

ELLEN FRY, Anna Wilkinson, David Johnson, W. James Prtichard, Nicholas Ostle, Elizabeth Baggs, Richard Bardgett

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Abstract

While the effect of drought on plant communities and their associated ecosystem functions is well studied, little research has considered how responses are modified by soil depth and depth heterogeneity. We conducted a mesocosm study comprising shallow and deep soils, and variable and uniform soil depths, and two levels of plant community composition, and exposed them to a simulated drought to test for interactive effects of these treatments on the resilience of carbon dioxide fluxes, plant functional traits, and soil chemical properties. We tested the hypotheses that: 1) shallow and variable depth soils lead to increased resistance and resilience of ecosystem functions to drought due to more exploitative plant trait strategies; 2) plant communities associated with intensively managed high fertility soils, will have more exploitative root traits than extensively managed, lower fertility plant communities. These traits will be associated with higher resistance and resilience to drought and may interact with soil depth and depth heterogeneity to amplify the effects on ecosystem functions.
Our results showed that while there were strong soil depth/heterogeneity effects on plant driven carbon fluxes, it did not affect resistance or resilience to drought, and there were no treatment effects on plant available carbon or nitrogen. We did observe a significant increase in exploitative root traits in shallow and variable soils relative to deep and uniform, which may have resulted in a compensation effect which led to the similar drought responses.
Plant community compositions representative of intensive management were more drought resilient than more diverse “extensive” communities irrespective of soil depth or soil depth heterogeneity. In intensively managed plant communities, root traits were more representative of exploitative strategies. Taken together our results suggest that reorganisation of root traits in response to soil depth could buffer drought effects on ecosystem functions.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-14
JournalEcology and Evolution
Early online date27 Jul 2021
DOIs
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 27 Jul 2021

Keywords

  • drought
  • ecosystem respiration
  • plant community composition
  • plant-soil (belowground) interactions
  • plasticity
  • resilience
  • resistance
  • root traits
  • soil depth

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