Three Tibetan grassland plant species tend to partition niches with limited plasticity in nitrogen use

  • Li Zhang
  • Rui Pang
  • Xingliang XuEmail author
  • Minghua Song
  • Yikang Li
  • Huakun Zhou
  • Xiaoyong Cui
  • Yanfen Wang
  • Hua Ouyang
Regular Article



Niche complementarity theory explains how species coexist by using different resources. Two pathways to partition resource have been demonstrated: classical niche differentiation and plasticity in resource use. We aimed to determine N-uptake patterns in three Tibetan Plateau grassland species, and to examine how N-partitioning is driven by neighbor interactions.


We conducted a transplantation experiment using ten plant communities, each comprising a different combination of Kobresia humilis, Stipa aliena, and Saussurea superba. Soil was sprayed uniformly with a mixture of (NH4)2SO4, KNO3, and glycine (C2H5NO2) (1:1:1 by mass of N, each containing one form of 15N) after growing for 45 days.


Across three species, the N-uptake pattern was NO3 > NH4+ > glycine (NO3: 58.47%; NH4+: 26.91%; glycine: 14.62%). Neighbor presence had species-specific effects on 15N recovery. Kobresia humilis took up more 15N-NO3 when it was in competition with other species, whereas Stipa aliena and Saussurea superba took up more 15N-NH4+ and 15N-glycine, respectively.


Plasticity in N resource utilization of the three species was limited. The species competed for N resources proportionally to the availability of these sources, and tended to partition niches. These findings provide important insights into how plant species grow together in alpine grasslands.


Niche complementarity Kobresia humilis Stipa aliena Saussurea superba 15Resource competition 



This work was done at the Haibei National Field Research Station of Alpine Grassland Ecosystem. We thank Tanfeng Yin and Yu Guo for their help in the field.


This study was supported by the National Key Research and Development Program of China (Grant No. 2016YFC0501802; 2017YFA0604802), the National Natural Science Foundation of China (31470560; 41671263) as well as Qinghai innovation platform construction project (2017-ZJ-Y20).

Supplementary material

11104_2019_4148_MOESM1_ESM.docx (13 kb)
Table S1 (DOCX 13 kb)


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Key Laboratory of Ecosystem Network Observation and Modeling, Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural ResourcesChinese Academy of SciencesBeijingPeople’s Republic of China
  2. 2.College of Resources and EnvironmentUniversity of Chinese Academy of SciencesBeijingChina
  3. 3.Northwest Institute of Plateau Biology Chinese Academy of Science Key Laboratory of Restoration Ecology of Cold Area in Qinghai Province XiningXiningChina
  4. 4.CAS Center for Excellence in Tibetan Plateau Earth SciencesChinese Academy of Sciences (CAS)BeijingChina
  5. 5.College of Life SciencesUniversity of the Chinese Academy of SciencesBeijingChina

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