Changes in soil nitrogen storage and15N with woody plant encroachment in a subtropical savanna parkland landscape Academic Article uri icon


  • Subtropical woodlands dominated by N-fixing tree legumes have largely replaced grasslands in the Rio Grande Plains, southwestern United States, during the past century. To evaluate the impact of this vegetation change on the N cycle, we measured the mass and isotopic composition (15N) of N in the soil system of remnant grasslands and woody plant stands ranging in age from 10 to 130 years. Nitrogen accumulated at linear rates following woody encroachment in the litter (0.10-0.14 g N m-2 yr-1), roots (0.63-0.98 g N m-2 yr-1), and soils (0.75-3.50 g N m -2 yr-1), resulting in a 50%-150% increase in N storage in the soil system (0-30 cm) in woody stands older than 60 years. Simultaneous decreases in soil 15N of up to 2 in the upper 30 cm of the profile are consistent with a scenario in which N inputs have exceeded losses following woody encroachment and suggest N accrual was derived from symbiotic N fixation by tree legumes and/or differential atmospheric N deposition to wooded areas. Vertical uplift and lateral transfer of N by the more deeply and intensively rooted woody plants may have contributed to N accumulation in wooded areas, but soil 15N values are inconsistent with this explanation. N accumulation following woody encroachment may alter soil N availability, species interactions and successional dynamics, flux rates of key trace gases such as NOX and N2O and ecosystem C sequestration. Given the geographic dimensions of woody encroachment, these results may have implications for atmospheric composition and the climate system. Copyright 2010 by the American Geophysical Union.

published proceedings

  • Journal of Geophysical Research

author list (cited authors)

  • Boutton, T. W., & Liao, J. D.

citation count

  • 40

complete list of authors

  • Boutton, TW||Liao, JD

publication date

  • August 2010