Root biomass and soil δ13C in C3 and C4 grasslands along a precipitation gradient

Thursday, 18 December 2014
Stephanie Pau and Courtney Lynn Angelo, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL, United States
Many studies have investigated the distribution of C3 and C4 grasses along climatic gradients because they illustrate complex interactions between abiotic and biotic controls on ecosystem functions. Yet few studies have examined belowground components of these distributions, which may present very different patterns compared to aboveground measures. In this study, we surveyed grass species cover and collected soil and root samples from field plots at 100 - 150 m elevation intervals along a climatic gradient in Hawai‘i. We examined how the relationship between soil carbon isotopic composition (δ13C), a proxy for C4 productivity and dominance, and % C4 cover changed along a climatic gradient. Results showed that δ13C underpredicted C4 dominance in wetter sites. Indeed, the relationship between % C4 cover and soil δ13C became more negative with increasing mean annual precipitation (MAP) based on a linear mixed-effects model (F 1,34 = 12.25, P < 0.01). Soil δ13C in wetter sites indicated a larger C3 contribution than estimated by aboveground cover, which was in part due to C3 root biomass increasing (P < 0.05) whereas C4 root biomass did not change along the precipitation gradient. C3 and C4 grasses appear to allocate disproportionately belowground, thus a different understanding of C4 ecological dominance may emerge when considering both above and belowground components. Our results show that belowground allocation and interpretation of soil δ13C need to be more carefully considered in global vegetation and carbon models and paleoecological reconstructions of C4 dominance.