Climatic/edaphic controls on soil carbon/nitrogen response to shrub encroachment in desert grassland

C. Winston Wheeler, Steven R. Archer, Gregory P. Asner, Chad R. McMurtry

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

65 Scopus citations


The proliferation of woody plants in grasslands over the past 100+ years can alter carbon, nitrogen, and water cycles and influence land surface-atmosphere interactions. Although the majority of organic carbon in these ecosystems resides belowground, there is no consensus on how this change in land cover has affected soil organic carbon (SOC) and total nitrogen (TN) pools. The degree to which duration of woody plant occupation, climate, and edaphic conditions have mediated SOC and TN responses to changes in life-form composition are poorly understood. We addressed these issues at a desert grassland site in Arizona, USA, where the leguminous shrub velvet mesquite (Prosopis velutina) has proliferated along an elevation/precipitation/ temperature gradient and on contrasting soil morphologic surfaces. On sandy loam complexes of mid-Holocene origin, mean SOC and TN of soils in the grassland matrix increased ∼68% and ∼45%, respectively, with increasing elevation. Soil organic carbon pools were comparable and TN pools were ∼23% higher in Pleistocene-aged clay loam complexes co-occurring with Holocene-aged soils at the upper elevation/climatic zone. Across the site, belowground resources associated with large Prosopis plants were 21-154% (SOC) and 18-127% (TN) higher than those in the grassy matrix. The variance in SOC and TN pools accounted for by Prosopis stem size (a rough surrogate for time of site occupation) was highest at the low- and mid-elevation sites (69-74%) and lowest at the upper elevation site (32-38%). Soil δ15N values ranged from 5.5‰ to 6.7‰ across the soil/elevation zones but were comparable in herbaceous and shrub-impacted soils and exhibited a weak relationship with Prosopis basal stem diameter (r2, 0.1) and TN (r2, 0.08). The SOC δ13C values decreased linearly with increasing Prosopis basal diameter, suggesting that size and isotopic composition of the SOC pool is a function of time of Prosopis site occupation. Isotopic mixture models indicate that encroachment of C3 woody plants has also promoted SOC additions from C4 plant sources, indicative of long-term herbaceous facilitation. Grassy sites in contrasting soil/elevation combinations, initially highly distinctive in their SOC pool size and δ13C, appear to be converging on similar values following ∼100 years of woody plant proliferation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1911-1928
Number of pages18
JournalEcological Applications
Issue number7
StatePublished - Oct 2007
Externally publishedYes


  • C
  • Carbon cycle
  • Carbon isotopes
  • Carbon sequestration
  • Mesquite
  • Prosopis velutina
  • Santa Rita experimental range, Arizona, USA
  • Soil nitrogen
  • Soil organic carbon
  • Sonoran desert
  • Woody plant encroachment

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology


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