Chin J Plan Ecolo ›› 2016, Vol. 40 ›› Issue (10): 991-1002.doi: 10.17521/cjpe.2015.0465

• Research Articles • Previous Articles     Next Articles

Relationships between soil nutrients and plant functional traits in different degradation stages of Leymus chinensis steppe in Nei Mongol, China

Dan LI1, Saruul KANG1,*, Meng-Ying ZHAO1, Qing ZHANG1,2, Hai-Juan REN1, Jing REN1, Jun-Mei ZHOU1, Zhen WANG1, Ren-Ji WU1, Jian-Ming NIU1,2,*   

  1. 1College of Life Sciences, Inner Mongolia University, Hohhot 010021, China

    2Sino-US Center for Conservation, Energy and Sustainability Sciences, Inner Mongolia University, Hohhot 010021, China
  • Online:2016-11-02 Published:2016-10-10
  • Contact: Saruul KANG,Jian-Ming NIU


Aims Understanding ecological implications of plant functional traits is helpful in exploring community assembly under different environments of nature and human disturbances, and then to reveal the maintenance mechanism of the ecosystem services. By analyzing vegetation and soil data derived from field observations in Leymus chinensis steppe of Xilin River Basin in Nei Mongol, we aimed to explore the responses of plant functional traits to changing soil nutrients at different degradation stages. Methods We observed 69 plots for both plant community structure and soil attributes using quadrat and soil-drilling methods. Five plant functional traits, namely the specific leaf area (SLA), leaf dry matter content (LDMC), leaf carbon to nitrogen ratio (C:N), leaf lignin content (LLC), and maximum height (MH), were measured for each plot. We also tested soil attributes, such as total nitrogen (TN), total phosphorus (TP), available nitrogen (AN), available phosphorus (AP), and organic carbon (OC). The sixty-nine communities were classified into four groups (undegraded L. chinensis + forbs, slightly degraded L. chinensis + Stipa sp., moderately degraded L. chinensis + Cleistogenes squarrosa, and heavily degraded L. chinensis + Artemisia frigida) using TWINSPAN software. The relationships between plant functional traits and soil nutrient variables were analyzed for the four community groups using the Pearson’s correlation test with SPSS 21.0 software. Important findings (1) The soil nutrients decreased with the grassland degradation process and there were significant differences in TN and TP between the undegraded L. chinensis + forbs and heavily degraded L. chinensis + A. frigida communities; (2) plant functional traits also showed strong differences between the degradation stages. MH and C:N decreased with degradation. A significant difference was observed in MH between the undegraded L. chinensis + forbs and slightly degraded L. chinensis + Stipa sp. communities. The difference in C:N was also significant between the undegraded L. chinensis + forbs and heavily degraded L. chinensis + A. frigida communities; (3) the effects of soil nutrients on plant functional traits changed with grassland degradation. AN was negatively correlated with MH, LLC, and C:N in the slightly degraded L. chinensis + Stipa sp. community. In the moderately degraded L. chinensis + C. squarrosa community, those three traits mentioned above showed significantly positive correlations with TP; (4) while analyzing the degraded grassland, different relationships between plant functional traits were found. In the slightly degraded L. chinensis + Stipa sp. community, LLC was positively correlated with all other traits. Moreover, positive correlations also occurred between C:N and MH, C:N and LDMC, and C:N and LLC. In the heavily degraded L. chinensis + A. frigida community, all traits demonstrated the most significantly positive correlations.

Key words: plant functional traits, soil nutrient, degradation succession, the Leymus chinensis steppe, Xilin River Basin

Fig. 1

The distribution map of observation sites."

Table 1

Relationships between soil nutrient contents and plant functional traits"

Leymus chinensis + forbs
SLA -0.074 -0.208 0.128 -0.247 0.007
MH -0.118 0.098 0.031 0.048 -0.167
LDMC 0.225 0.297 0.208 0.090 0.244
LLC -0.361 -0.196 -0.218 -0.316 -0.268
C:N -0.275 -0.571** -0.043 -0.534* -0.126
Leymus chinensis + Stipa sp.
SLA -0.051 -0.305 0.106 0.147 0.019
MH -0.398 -0.515* -0.037 -0.214 -0.395
LDMC 0.061 -0.349 0.204 0.142 0.054
LLC -0.384 -0.667** -0.102 -0.126 -0.382
C:N -0.203 -0.697** 0.068 -0.114 -0.208
Leymus chinensis + Cleistogenes squarrosa
SLA 0.052 -0.078 0.034 -0.103 0.144
MH 0.371 0.210 0.477* -0.096 0.222
LDMC 0.306 -0.257 0.376 0.293 0.049
LLC 0.509* -0.066 0.514* 0.181 0.286
C:N 0.223 -0.362 0.562** 0.262 -0.029
Leymus chinensis + Artemisia frigida
SLA 0.519 0.127 0.309 0.280 0.416
MH 0.432 0.140 0.236 0.254 0.332
LDMC 0.404 0.305 0.202 0.159 0.329
LLC 0.354 0.144 0.132 0.143 0.250
C:N 0.608 0.342 0.441 0.260 0.526

Fig. 2

Comparison of soil nutrient among different degradation stages (mean ± SE). I, Leymus chinensis + forbs; II, Leymus chinensis + Stipa sp.; III, Leymus chinensis + Cleistogenes squarrosa; IV, Leymus chinensis + Artemisia frigida. ns refers to no significant difference at p > 0.05. Letters in each subgraph indicate significant differences between stages (p < 0.05). AN, available nitrogen; AP, available phosphorus; OC, organic carbon; TN, total nitrogen; TP, total phosphorus."

Fig. 3

Comparison of plant functional traits among different degradation stages (mean ± SE). I, Leymus chinensis + forbs; II, Leymus chinensis + Stipa sp.; III, Leymus chinensis + Cleistogenes squarrosa; IV, Leymus chinensis + Artemisia frigida. ns refers to no significant difference at p > 0.05. Letters in each subgraph indicate significant differences between stages (p < 0.05). C:N, leaf carbon and nitrogen ratio; LDMC, leaf dry matter content; LLC, leaf lignin content; MH, maximum height; SLA, specific leaf area."

Table 2

Relationships among plant functional traits"

Leymus chinensis + forbs
SLA 1 0.015 -0.435* -0.050 0.268
MH 1 -0.005 0.527* 0.309
LDMC 1 0.021 -0.102
LLC 1 0.575**
C:N 1
Leymus chinensis + Stipa sp.
SLA 1 0.434 0.425 0.603** 0.406
MH 1 0.518* 0.681** 0.565*
LDMC 1 0.493* 0.634**
LLC 1 0.693**
C:N 1
Leymus chinensis +
Cleistogenes squarrosa
SLA 1 -0.128 -0.080 0.088 0.184
MH 1 0.330 0.520* 0.232
LDMC 1 0.735** 0.356
LLC 1 0.388
C:N 1
Leymus chinensis +
Artemisia frigida
SLA 1 0.961** 0.838** 0.935** 0.944**
MH 1 0.854** 0.919** 0.892**
LDMC 1 0.953** 0.842**
LLC 1 0.906**
C:N 1


Appendix I The result of TWINSPAN classification^ Site numbers are shown in vertical sequence (top-down) by the first two lines on the top of the table. The first three sites coded 19, 61, and 25, for example, are at the very beginning on the left, and the last one is site 6 on the right end. Code of plant species is shown on the very left (the first 11 chars, including blanks) for each line. Var is the abbreviation of “variable”. A group of 0 and 1 on the right demonstrates the classification of plant species; Numbers and dashes appeared in the central part of the table indicate the value of species in sites. The number 5 refers to the most important, and the sign of dash illustrates that the value of species in sites can be neglected; Results of site classification are summarized by the last 6 lines at the bottom of the table, 0 and 1 refer to differentiation. At first, all sites are categorized to 2 groups shown in the line 6 from the end. And then, these two groups are classified further into 4 groups (in the line 5 from the end) by means of dichotomy, and so forth."

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