Fire and topographic effects on decomposition rates and nitrogen dynamics of buried wood in tallgrass prairie

TitleFire and topographic effects on decomposition rates and nitrogen dynamics of buried wood in tallgrass prairie
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication1996
AuthorsO'Lear, HA, Seastedt, TR, Briggs, JM, Blair, JM, Ramundo, RA
JournalSoil Biology & Biochemistry
Pagination323 -329
Accession NumberKNZ00561
Keywordstallgrass prairie

Decay rates and N dynamics of wood in soils of annually burned and unburned tallgrass prairie were measured over a 3-y period. Wooden dowels were placed at upland, mid-slope and lowland sites in two annually burned and two unburned watersheds. After 3 y, an average of only 15% of initial wood mass remained in burned watersheds, while 34% remained in unburned watersheds. Topographic position also significantly affected decay rates, with dowels decaying faster in the shallow-soil, upland sites and slope sites than in the deep-soil, lowland sites. This pattern is opposite of that generally observed for plant productivity (i.e. greater at lowland sites compared to uplands), and suggests that the controls of belowground decomposition and plant productivity are dissimilar. Dowels in both burned and unburned watersheds showed significant increases in N concentration over 3 y. Topographic position did not affect N concentration in the residual dowel material. Burn treatment, however, did affect N concentration, with dowels decomposing in burned watersheds having a higher average N concentration (0.5% after 3 y exposure) than dowels in unburned watersheds (0.43%). Relatively rapid decay rates resulted in net release of N, despite increased N concentration in the residual material. Faster net N release on the annually burned watershed was due to faster mass loss, since there were no differences in the rate of increase in N concentration per unit mass lost. Surface soil temperatures on burned prairie following spring fire usually exceed those on unburned prairie. However, average monthly summer soil temperatures (May‚ÄďAugust) at a 10 cm depth in burned and unburned plots during the study were not statistically different and could not explain decay rate differences. Additionally, one of our unburned watersheds was accidentally burned during the first year of the study. Surprisingly, there were no significant differences in rates of wood decay between that watershed and the other unburned watershed. This suggests that indirect effects of annual fire (i.e. changes in the composition of soil flora and fauna) may override the short-term effects of fire (i.e. changes in soil temperature and moisture) on belowground decomposition in tallgrass prairie.