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Oecologia. 2003 Feb;134(3):317-24. Epub 2003 Jan 11.

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

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  • 1Department of Forest, Range, and Wildlife Sciences, Utah State University, Logan, UT 84322-5230, USA.


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 below ground 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 K(15)NO(3) so that timing of plant nitrogen uptake could be monitored. In addition, soil NH(4)(+) and NO(3)(-) concentrations and physiological uptake capacities for NO(3)(-) and NH(4)(+) 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 above ground 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 NH(4)(+) than for NO(3)(-), 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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