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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Research Project: GRASSLAND PRODUCTIVITY AND CARBON DYNAMICS: CONSEQUENCES OF CHANGE IN ATMOSPHERIC CO2, PRECIPITATION, AND PLANT SPECIES COMPOSITION, ...

Location: Grassland, Soil and Water Research Laboratory

Title: CO2 enrichment increases element concentrations in grass mixtures by changing species abundances

Authors
item Polley, Wayne
item Fay, Philip
item Jin, Virginia
item Combs, Gerald

Submitted to: Plant Ecology
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: November 23, 2010
Publication Date: March 25, 2011
Citation: Polley, H.W., Fay, P.A., Jin, V.L., Combs, G.F. 2011. CO2 enrichment increases element concentrations in grass mixtures by changing species abundances. Plant Ecology. 212:945-957.

Interpretive Summary: The concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) gas in the atmosphere is increasing because of fossil fuel combustion and land use changes. Plants grow by converting carbon dioxide (CO2) gas in air into carbohydrates, hence the continuing rise in atmospheric CO2 may increase plant growth and change plant abundances by favoring some species over others. Both the increase in plant growth and changes in species composition could, in turn, affect the nutritional quality of grassland vegetation that is grazed by livestock or harvested for hay. We sought to determine whether CO2 effects on levels of chemical elements in grass mixtures result mainly from changes in element concentrations of individual species or from shifts in species abundances. We measured concentrations of 11 nutritionally important elements in above-ground tissues of three warm-season perennial grasses grown at pre-Industrial to elevated CO2 concentrations. The three grasses, Bouteloua curtipendula (sideoats grama), Schizachyrium scoparium (little bluestem) and Sorghastrum nutans (indiangrass), are dominants in tallgrass prairie vegetation growing along the field CO2 gradient located in central Texas, USA. Concentrations of most elements either did not respond to CO2 treatment or increased at higher CO2. The mid-statured grass Bouteloua declined at higher CO2 levels as abundance of the taller grass Sorghastrum increased. Concentrations of several elements were lower in Bouteloua than Sorghastrum, hence this exchange of species as CO2 increased improved the overall nutritional status of grasses. By favoring one grass species over another, the pre-Industrial to elevated rise in CO2 increased concentrations of several elements important to livestock. Results highlight the under-appreciated impact that rising CO2, like management activities, may have on livestock by changing plant composition.

Technical Abstract: The continuing rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration may increase plant growth relatively more than the uptake of soil-derived chemical elements that are essential for herbivores. Rising CO2 also may alter the nutritional quality of forage or fodder derived from multi-species vegetation by changing plant species abundances or composition. We measured concentrations of 11 nutritionally important elements in above-ground tissues of three C4 grasses that had been exposed for two growing seasons to a continuous gradient in CO2 from 250 to 500 umol mol-1. The three grasses, Bouteloua curtipendula, Schizachyrium scoparium, and Sorghastrum nutans, are competitive dominants in assemblages of tallgrass prairie vegetation growing on each of three soil types along a field CO2 gradient located in central Texas, USA. Our objective was to determine whether CO2 effects on levels of chemical elements in grass mixtures result mainly from changes in element concentrations of individual species or from shifts in species abundances. Increased CO2 had little effect on element concentrations in C4 grasses compared to differences observed among the three grass species and three soil types. Increasing CO2 from the pre-Industrial to near the current and to elevated levels reduced the phosphorus concentration in grasses grown on a clay soil and a sandy loam soil, respectively. Concentrations of most other elements either did not respond to CO2 treatment or increased at higher CO2. Cover of the mid-grass Bouteloua declined at higher CO2 levels as cover of the taller grass Sorghastrum increased. Concentrations of several elements were lower in Bouteloua than Sorghastrum, hence this exchange of species as CO2 increased improved the overall nutritional status of grasses. Several of the elements for which concentrations were smallest in Bouteloua, including P, Cu, and Se, occurred at levels that are inadequate to support the growth of beef cattle. By favoring one grass species over another, the pre-Industrial to elevated rise in CO2 increased concentrations of several elements important to herbivore nutrition. Results highlight the under-appreciated impact that CO2 enrichment may have on ecosystem services by changing plant composition.

Last Modified: 4/23/2014
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