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Root responses and nitrogen acquisition by Artemisia tridentata and Agropyron desertorum following small summer rainfall events

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Resources in the Great Basin of western North America often occur in pulses, and plant species must rapidly respond to temporary increases in water and nutrients during the growing season. A field study was conducted to evaluate belowground responses of Artemisia tridentata and Agropyron desertorum, common Great Basin shrub and grass species, respectively, to simulated 5-mm (typical summer rain) and 15-mm (large summer rain) summer rainfall events. The simulated rainfall was labeled with K15NO3 so that timing of plant nitrogen uptake could be monitored. In addition, soil NH4 + and NO3 concentrations and physiological uptake capacities for NO3 and NH4 + were determined before and after the rainfall events. Root growth in the top 15 cm of soil was monitored using a minirhizotron system. Surprisingly, there was no difference in the amount of labeled N acquired in response to the two rainfall amounts by either species during the 7-day sample period. However, there were differences between species in the timing of labeled N uptake. The N label was detected in aboveground tissue of Agropyron within 1 h of the simulated rainfall events, but not until 24 h after the rainfall in Artemisia. For both Agropyron and Artemisia, root uptake capacity was similarly affected by the 5-mm and 15-mm rainfall. There was, however, a greater increase in uptake capacity for NH4 + than for NO3 , and the 15-mm event resulted in a longer response. No root growth occurred in either species in response to either rainfall event during this 8-day period. The results of this study indicate that these species are capable of utilizing nitrogen pulses following even small summer rainfall events during the most stressful period of the summer and further emphasize the importance of small precipitation events in arid systems.

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We would like to thank A. Mull, P. Squires, and M. Ercanbrack for assistance in the field and D. Johnson for allowing us to utilize his land for this project. Stable isotope analyses were performed in the laboratory of M. Firestone at UC Berkeley. We also thank several anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on previous versions of this manuscript. This project was funded with a grant from the National Science Foundation (DEB 9807097) and the Utah Agricultural Experiment Station.

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Correspondence to A. Joshua Leffler.

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Ivans, C.Y., Leffler, A.J., Spaulding, U. et al. Root responses and nitrogen acquisition by Artemisia tridentata and Agropyron desertorum following small summer rainfall events. Oecologia 134, 317–324 (2003).

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  • Agropyron desertorum
  • Artemisia tridentata
  • Great Basin
  • Nitrogen uptake capacity
  • Root responses