Global change biology

Exotic grasses and nitrate enrichment alter soil carbon cycling along an urban-rural tropical forest gradient.

PMID 26297074


Urban areas are expanding rapidly in tropical regions, with potential to alter ecosystem dynamics. In particular, exotic grasses and atmospheric nitrogen (N) deposition simultaneously affect tropical urbanized landscapes, with unknown effects on properties like soil carbon (C) storage. We hypothesized that (H1) soil nitrate (NO3 (-) ) is elevated nearer to the urban core, reflecting N deposition gradients. (H2) Exotic grasslands have elevated soil NO3 (-) and decreased soil C relative to secondary forests, with higher N promoting decomposer activity. (H3) Exotic grasslands have greater seasonality in soil NO3 (-) vs. secondary forests, due to higher sensitivity of grassland soil moisture to rainfall. We predicted that NO3 (-) would be positively related to dissolved organic C (DOC) production via changes in decomposer activity. We measured six paired grassland/secondary forest sites along a tropical urban-to-rural gradient during the three dominant seasons (hurricane, dry, and early wet). We found that (1) soil NO3 (-) was generally elevated nearer to the urban core, with particularly clear spatial trends for grasslands. (2) Exotic grasslands had lower soil C than secondary forests, which was related to elevated decomposer enzyme activities and soil respiration. Unexpectedly, soil NO3 (-) was negatively related to enzyme activities, and was lower in grasslands than forests. (3) Grasslands had greater soil NO3 (-) seasonality vs. forests, but this was not strongly linked to shifts in soil moisture or DOC. Our results suggest that exotic grasses in tropical regions are likely to drastically reduce soil C storage, but that N deposition may have an opposite effect via suppression of enzyme activities. However, soil NO3 (-) accumulation here was higher in urban forests than grasslands, potentially related to of aboveground N interception. Net urban effects on C storage across tropical landscapes will likely vary depending on the mosaic of grass cover, rates of N deposition, and responses by local decomposer communities.