, Volume 191, Issue 4, pp 971–981 | Cite as

Assessing tree ring δ15N of four temperate deciduous species as an indicator of N availability using independent long-term records at the Fernow Experimental Forest, WV

  • Mark B. BurnhamEmail author
  • Mary Beth Adams
  • William T. Peterjohn
Ecosystem ecology – original research


Nitrogen deposition in the northeastern US changed N availability in the latter part of the twentieth century, with potential legacy effects. However, long-term N cycle measurements are scarce. N isotopes in tree rings have been used as an indicator of N availability through time, but there is little verification of whether species differ in the strength of this signal. Using long-term records at the Fernow Experimental Forest in West Virginia, we examined the relationship between soil conditions, including net nitrification rates, and wood δ15N in 2014, and tested the strength of correlation between tree ring δ15N of four species and stream water NO3 loss from 1971 to 2000. Higher soil NO3 was weakly associated with higher wood δ15N across species, and higher soil net nitrification rates were associated with higher δ15N for Quercus rubra only. The δ15N of Liriodendron tulipifera and Q. rubra, but neither Fagus grandifolia nor Prunus serotina, was correlated with stream water NO3. L. tulipifera tree ring δ15N had a stronger association with stream water NO3 than Q. rubra. Overall, we found only limited evidence of a relationship between soil N cycling and tree ring δ15N, with a strong correlation between the wood δ15N and NO3 leaching loss through time for one of four species. Tree species differ in their ability to preserve legacies of N cycling in tree ring δ15N, and given the weak relationships between contemporary wood δ15N and soil N cycle measurements, caution is warranted when using wood δ15N to infer changes in the N cycle.


Dendroisotope Wood δ15Nitrogen deposition Watershed Fernow Experimental Forest 



The authors thank Chris Walter, Rachel Arrick, Jessica Graham, Hoff Lindberg, Hannah Hedrick, and Leah Baldinger for their field and laboratory assistance on this study. We also acknowledge the USDA Forest Service staff at the Fernow Experimental Forest for long-term management of the site and support of this project. This work was supported by the Long-Term Research in Environmental Biology (LTREB) program at the National Science Foundation (Grant nos. DEB-0417678 and DEB-1019522) and the WVU Department of Biology and Eberly College of Arts and Sciences.

Author contribution statement

MBB and WTP conceived the idea. MBA maintained and processed long-term N data, and MBB and WTP performed field core and soil collection and laboratory analyses. MBA provided editorial advice, and MBB and WTP analyzed the data and wrote the manuscript.

Supplementary material

442_2019_4528_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (483 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (PDF 482 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts InnovationUniversity of Illinois Urbana-ChampaignUrbanaUSA
  2. 2.USDA Forest Service Northern Research StationMorgantownUSA
  3. 3.Department of BiologyWest Virginia UniversityMorgantownUSA

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