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Nature. 2008 Feb 7;451(7179):712-5. doi: 10.1038/nature06503.

Loss of plant species after chronic low-level nitrogen deposition to prairie grasslands.

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Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, 100 Ecology, 1987 Upper Buford Circle, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, Minnesota 55108, USA.


Rates of atmospheric deposition of biologically active nitrogen (N) are two to seven times the pre-industrial rates in many developed nations because of combustion of fossil fuels and agricultural fertilization. They are expected to increase similarly over the next 50 years in industrializing nations of Asia and South America. Although the environmental impacts of high rates of nitrogen addition have been well studied, this is not so for the lower, chronic rates that characterize much of the globe. Here we present results of the first multi-decadal experiment to examine the impacts of chronic, experimental nitrogen addition as low as 10 kg N ha(-1) yr(-1) above ambient atmospheric nitrogen deposition (6 kg N ha(-1) yr(-1) at our site). This total input rate is comparable to terrestrial nitrogen deposition in many industrialized nations. We found that this chronic low-level nitrogen addition rate reduced plant species numbers by 17% relative to controls receiving ambient N deposition. Moreover, species numbers were reduced more per unit of added nitrogen at lower addition rates, suggesting that chronic but low-level nitrogen deposition may have a greater impact on diversity than previously thought. A second experiment showed that a decade after cessation of nitrogen addition, relative plant species number, although not species abundances, had recovered, demonstrating that some effects of nitrogen addition are reversible.

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