Vegetation recovery alters soil N status in subtropical karst plateau area: Evidence from natural abundance δ15N and δ18O



Forest recovery from disturbance can alter soil nitrogen (N) status as a result of complex interactions in plant-soil system. The δ15N and δ18O are indicators that integrate complex soil N processes and can help elucidate changes in soil N status. Our objectives were to evaluate differences in soil N status among different forest recovery stages in karst plateau in southwestern China.


We established a forest recovery gradient with sites in cropland, abandoned cropland, shrub land, and early- and late-successional forests. We measured concentrations and isotopic compositions of soil total N, ammonium (NH4+), and nitrate (NO3), and δ15N of plant tissue.


With increased levels of recovery, concentrations of soil total N increased, and δ15N of soil total N (δ15NSTN) decreased at 0 ~ 10 cm depth. A positive relationship between δ15NSTN in surface soil and δ15N of plant (P < 0.05) suggested that recovery of plant biomass was the main contributor to soil N recovery. A large difference between δ15N of litter and δ15NSTN demonstrated an important dependence of plants on mycorrhizal fungi for N acquisition. δ15N of NH4+ was lower than δ15NSTN, and a significant correlation between δ15N and δ18O of NO3 was observed only in late-successional forest (slope = l.4), indicating that gas N emission had a minor contribution to N loss. Ratio of ammonium N to nitrate N was < 1 (except in cropland), suggesting low risk of leaching.


Forest recovery promoted soil N recovery, and reduced soil N loss in karst plateau. However, N limitation persisted throughout forest recovery stages.

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Data availability

All data generated during this study are included in this published article.


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All auxiliary datasets were shared from “Functional Trait database of terrestrial ecosystems in China (China_Trait)”. Special thanks to Puding Karst Ecosystem Observation and Research Station, Chinese Ecosystem Research Network (CERN) of Chinese Academy of Sciences for providing the study with convenient conditions.


This study was supported by the National Key Research and Development Program of China (2017YFC0503904), and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (41830860 and 41571130043).

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J.W., X.F.W. and S.D.L. planed and designed the research. J.W. performed experiments and analyzed data. All authors jointly wrote the manuscript. All authors contributed critically to the drafts and gave final approval for publication.

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Correspondence to Xuefa Wen or Sidan Lyu.

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Wang, J., Wen, X., Lyu, S. et al. Vegetation recovery alters soil N status in subtropical karst plateau area: Evidence from natural abundance δ15N and δ18O. Plant Soil (2021).

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  • Karst
  • Ecological restoration
  • Stable isotope
  • Decomposition
  • Ammonia volatilization
  • Denitrification